A Cautionary Tale About Data Assets in the IoT Age

Oct. 13, 2016

The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) is bringing new ways to build success for many companies and is changing the culture of business. IoT plays by new rules.

I live in a smaller town, about 11,000 people or so. It's not Mayberry but it's small enough that residents know the local businesses and like to support those independent enterprises. Stopping into one of our small businesses serves several purposes - in my case, getting my computer fixed and listening to the current buzz about other businesses in town.

A couple of weeks ago, I lugged my ailing laptop to our local computer repair service hoping the owner, Dave, could salvage some of my data trapped on a bad drive. That's when Dave told me about another of his customer's data horror story. That customer lost more than 20 years of digital information overnight.

How? Human error in our digital culture. Here's what happened.

Dave's client is a local well-established service business that has been part of our town for several decades. It is heavily dependent on detailed client information. The business's owner has taken advantage of data technologies and spent considerable time and money transferring 20+ years of the firm's records from cardboard storage boxes to digital files.

Dave helped the owner set up his computer network, making sure their hardware, software and supplier services meshed smoothly. Company employees were trained, regular data backups were scheduled, security was kept up to date. The new data system and protocols benefited the company and its customers. Most of the day-to-day computer network maintenance and was handled by  a multitasking admin employee or Dave.

About 18 months ago, the business's owner reconfigured his data computing model and contracted with a start-up cloud data service center recommended by another local company. The cloud company took care of the set up and Dave wasn't called in to assist. Making use of the cloud's infrastructure, platform and software-as-a-service (SaaS) computing simplified the business's operations, saved some money, and gave the company access to more data-driven opportunities. Storing valuable files off-site was especially helpful. The price for the service was good. The Internet of Things was working well.

A few days before I spoke with Dave about my own data dilemma, the owner of the other company called him in a panic. The cloud service had pulled the plug on his account. Seems when it came time to renew the service contract between the cloud service and Dave's client, notifications were handled in the new and improved IoT way.

In IoT culture, business relationships have become digital too. Communication is automated, creating a sort of simulation of a relationship between two companies. Admittedly, the beauty of IoT operations is that customer service is often an efficient bit of programming that automatically signals when to churn out electronic reminders, notices and alerts. Based on the responses to those digital outreaches, the program takes the predetermined action. A digital decision is made, no human required. Operation costs are kept down, efficiency is considered to be high, and glitches due to messy human reasoning are eliminated.

The cloud service reached out to Dave's client via email to remind the company their contract anniversary was near. When the cloud received no response from Dave's client, several more notices were emailed with escalating degrees of urgency. Did the company want to renew, transfer their data to another service, pull things back in-house?

By the time Dave's client realized what happened, it was too late. When the client contracted with the somewhat vaguely (but trendy) named cloud company, the owner's email address was entered as the preferred primary business contact. When email notices were sent from the cloud company, the owner mistook them as just more junk mail and deleted them unopened. Who has time to read all this stuff?

Eventually, the cloud gave up. The digital policy on the cloud's site clearly states its terms - it guarantees a high percentage of up time, offers help FAQs(human interaction is an extra charge and discouraged), and if the cloud's client doesn't pay its bill, the cloud has the right to delete the account.  The client's stored payment information had been declined and attempts to reach out - digitally -to the small company failed. The cloud company had done everything it could, as determined by its IoT business model which doesn't include voice technology such as phone calls, so it deleted the small business's account and assets.

Dave said his client begged him to find some way, a miracle perhaps, to recover his lost data. The trendy-named cloud service wasn't one Dave would have recommended and was cheap for good reason. Nothing the cloud company did was illegal, it simply had poor customer service.  Dave told me he dreaded having to call his client with the bad news. 

Moral of this story:

Proactivity is your best data asset protection. Understand that in the past decade best-practices have shifted dramatically. With the technological wonders and benefits that come with the Internet of Things also comes greater responsibility to protect your company's virtual assets because automated software protocols don't take into consideration human error. 

Things you should do:

  • Centralize your IT operations so that all functions - upgrades, repairs, service providers, consultants, etc. - are managed under one department. That department or manager should have strong relationships with other departments in your business, but ultimately be the only responsible party for IT management. Your other department managers know their business - let your IT manager handle your company's connection to the IoT. Don't try to herd cats.
  • Work with proven providers. IoT best practices are subjective. Your data assets have real-world value but laws regulating digital material are few. If a service provider has made its policies available,  the assumption is their responsibility for your digital assets are limited to what they specifically spell out in their contract with their customers. Read the fine print. The best gauge of a provider's worth to your company is its verifiable track record with companies similar to yours. Talk with the provider, other customers, and trade associations who have created standards reputable companies adhere to.  
  • Cover your own (virtual) butt. The IoT is a strange economy in that companies offering services to yours can find a myriad of ways to measure the value of your data as a profit center for them, but assume little or no responsibility for what the loss of your data will cost your company. To rephrase Tennessee Williams, don't rely on the kindness of strangers. Asks what their policies are if there is a failure. Get it in writing. If it doesn't feel right, contract with someone else.
  • Data management is evolving blindingly fast. Find your own 'Dave', whether that is an independent consultant, a company-sponsored industry authority, or an advisory firm. Use their expertise.