Managing digitisation safely

David Noble, Group CEO, Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply
8 April 2015

"Knowledge is power, information is liberating,” said Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary-general.

The emergence of the digital age has already shown itself to be one of the most significant periods in the world’s history, and the scale of its potential for good and evil changes with each passing day.

Digitisation has touched virtually every country around the globe. The danger now is how every nation manages this development, the level of sophistication in its approach and how it will affect the rest of us in our interconnected world.

At first as the scale of digitisation grew, the problem seemed relatively simple; in hindsight. Handling the vast amounts of information, or ‘big data’, into useable chunks was a challenge, but possible. But now, the test is how we protect valuable data from theft and misuse and ultimately there is a power struggle around who ‘owns’ it and how much should be shared, how it can be preserved.

Cyber security has become a new challenge for procurement professionals as they need to scrutinise how key suppliers manage their data and use IT systems to ensure that any vulnerabilities don’t affect their own businesses. With outsourcing on the up and information technology channels becoming more intertwined between buyers and suppliers, business is exposed to a greater risk of cyber and information security.

Freedom of information groups are constantly at odds with government agencies on the subject of who has access, control and ownership, and how freely available sensitive material should be.

The arguments over WikiLeaks rage on, with one German conceptual artist taking the sharing of information to a new level. During the Cold War after the Second World War, spies needed to transfer classified information without detection and used ‘dead drops’ – small spaces behind a brick or under a flagstone, to be picked up by their contact. Since 2010 Aram Bartholl has hidden USB drives in walls, fences and in kerbs creating a peer-to-peer file sharing network which has developed into a global phenomenon with locations in virtually every country in the world. Of course, it is being closely monitored by concerned security agencies who reportedly found information containing instructions in bomb-making and how to make poisons.

What it underlines for the IT procurement professional is the need to understand how these developments offer risks and opportunities. The UK’s Data Protection Act specifies eight principles around ‘good information handling’ which gives us as individuals, rights in relation to our personal information, and places obligations on the organisations that handle it. But this data is stored on personal devices, in cloud storage systems, on various websites such as Dropbox, on portable disks and drives, so unravelling all the pathways where data exists can seem insurmountable.

With the advent in business of BYOD (bring your own device) where staff use their personal devices for work purposes, there are advantages – from saving money on IT costs to making staff more motivated and productive through being able to use a much-loved device – but the strategy also carries a high risk of commercial information leakage. In February this year, the vice president of Google, Vint Cerf issued a warning of a return to the ‘Dark Ages’. He was referring to the period in Europe’s history between the fifth and eighth centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire when few physical records were left to tell us what life was like.

Likewise in the 21st century, so much information, whether text or images, music or other forms of data is stored digitally, in formats that become obsolete quickly, so we could rob future generations of our history and insights. Cerf advised internet users to print valuable photographs and documents to preserve them forever. That seems to have worked for important documents such as the Magna Carta, so we would be wise to take heed and be aware of the pros and cons of our digitised existence.

David Noble, group CEO, CIPS. If you have any comments or wish to raise a topic, please get in touch at

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