The infinite monkey theorem

The explosion of data will soon become a horror story unless regional enterprises wise up to data loss, says Eliot Beer.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  March 15, 2008

There is a theory, which states that an infinite number of monkeys, working on an infinite number of typewriters, will almost surely produce the complete works of Shakespeare - or any other text, for that matter - if given enough time.

Attempts at comedy ("We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the internet, we know this is not true." Robert Wilensky, 1996) notwithstanding, it does sometimes seem as if the information age is a gigantic experiment, designed to test what is actually a rather abstract mathematical theory - except that the monkeys have now gone virtual.

This impression is only enforced when items such as IDC's Digital Universe report appear and tell us that not only is the amount of digital data out there larger than we thought - at 281 exabytes - but that it is also growing faster than ever as more and more new streams of data come into the world.

This equates to around 44.6Gbytes of data for every one of the 6.3 billion or so people on this planet - a pretty scary statistic, considering only a small fraction of us are actually contributing to data creation. And I don't just mean creation in terms of digital photos or video, or even MP3 collections or downloaded movies - for the first time, according to IDC, 2007 saw more data created about people than by people.

IDC refers to this phenomenon as the "digital shadow" - that trail of information which streams behind anyone who is active in the information society. Web browsing, phone calls, bank transactions, plane travel - more and more of our daily existence is being recorded in a database somewhere.

On a personal level this is potentially a deeply unnerving thought - but for enterprises, it should be terrifying.

A revealing statistic from the IDC report says that while individuals are responsible for the creation of 70% of the world's data, enterprises are actually responsible for looking after 85% of all data. So while the average person in a connected society makes his or her way through the world, businesses and government organisations are left holding on to the vast majority of information being created about them.

Twenty years ago this would merely be a point of interest for enterprises - although they might have been slightly concerned about where they were supposed to keep all this data. Ten years ago executives would probably have started to worry about keeping this data safe.

Today, in many countries in the world there probably isn't a single chief executive in a customer facing company who is not utterly petrified about the potential for massive data loss.

The Middle East has so far escaped the terror of compulsory disclosure of data losses, in contrast to the United States and its ongoing litany of humiliation and scandal of enterprise security breaches. But as time goes on and losses mount, the public will start to demand more transparency - and accountability - from enterprises.

Rational businesses would start disclosure now, while there is probably still some tolerance among regional consumers, and there is time to fix the problem. Because the longer enterprises wait, the more data they will hold, and the more sensitive this data will become, making the eventual disaster that much worse.

For enterprises out there that believe they are fire proof, that their data repositories and core applications are immune to attack, there is a nasty shock on the way. The only reason regional businesses have so far escaped wholesale bombardment from data thieves is their relatively small size.

But as the bigger boys in the US and Europe wise up and seal their easily-exploited vulnerabilities, the growing number of criminal groups which make their living from data theft will turn their attention to less-prepared areas of the global economy - such as the Middle East.

I wish that I was being alarmist, I wish that I could make a devil's advocate argument saying that regional enterprises can ignore this latest threat. But the reality is that firms around the world have now had fair warning - everyone's a target, and nothing is safe.

Regional enterprises have a small window of opportunity to wake up and batten down their IT hatches. After that window closes, the text those virtual monkeys are writing is going to read less like Shakespeare, and more like Stephen King.

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