4 Risks of Storing Large Amounts of Unstructured Data

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Click to learn more about author Gary Lyng.

In 2013, the big data headline was the incredible statistic that 90% of all data in the history of the entire human race had been created in the previous two years. The amount of structured and unstructured data we’ve created was so mind-boggling that we deemed it “big data.” Now it’s 2021 and that exponential growth has not slowed down – in fact, it has sped up. In 2020, each person generated an average of 1.7 megabytes of data per second. The sheer volume of data being created can be overwhelming to comprehend for one person – and especially for an enterprise organization. 

Big data is as versatile as the people that create it. It comes in a variety of forms and from an ever-expanding number of sources. From online to offline sources, structured to unstructured data sets – the data is vast. For highly regulated industries, there are rules set up to ensure the maintenance of structured and unstructured data. But this doesn’t mean that without regulatory bodies other organizations don’t have their own reasons for needing to store and analyze data. In fact, 95% of businesses report managing unstructured data as a pain point for their business.

Unstructured Data Everywhere

Eighty to 90% of the data we create today is unstructured. It’s not hard to understand why, what with social media and entertainment being available in the palm of our hands. In fact, there were 4.66 billion active internet users around the world in January 2021, and every day, 306.4 billion emails are sent and 500 million tweets posted. 

While structured data exists in preset models and formats, unstructured data includes all the formats that aren’t as easily digested and organized. With all of this unstructured data piling up, the problems with storing it pile up at almost the same rate. Here are four of the biggest risks enterprises are facing: 

1. Operational problems: Data headaches begin almost immediately with unstructured data because it doesn’t adhere to any data standard. Without structure, searching and managing it becomes almost impossible. The most successful businesses in any sector rely on data-driven decision-making, but without visibility, this unstructured data avoids detection and essentially becomes useless. You need to know where your data is, what it shows, and what it can do in order to get the most use out of it. If you can’t find or read the data, then what’s the point in having it? 

2. Misleading insights from BI tools: We all know the saying: Garbage in, garbage out. In data, this is never truer. When using business intelligence, if the data you input is poor quality or missing information, the output you’re getting can’t be relied on. This is why having a clear view of your data is so critical. How do you know if you’re using the right data if you can’t see what data you have available? Storing tons of unstructured data can also create the possibility of using the wrong data set entirely, which can lead to poor data-driven decisions. An outdated data set could completely wreck your business plans, leaving you to operate in the dark even when you think you’re utilizing the best BI tools. 

3. Increased data theft: The law of numbers tells us that the more data you have, the more likely you are to lose some of it to theft. But unstructured data can include the most valuable insights that hackers have access to—and you don’t see because it’s great at avoiding detection.

The sheer number of data types that remain unstructured makes the security of this data one of the most prescient risks organizations face. Structured data can offer plenty of private information, but the real golden nuggets that hackers and data thieves are interested in are in the unstructured data. Think of the sensitive information you reveal in personal emails and messages or that you leave in the meeting notes from an executive-level meeting. Your proprietary source code for software? Financial statements and international account lists? Future goals and business strategies? All unstructured.

4. Data privacy law fines: Because of the value of data, data privacy laws are expanding worldwide. The laws regulate how information is collected, how data subjects are informed, and what control they have over the data after it’s been collected. Laws like the GDPR and CCPA extend protections to consumers’ personal information, which is often nestled away in unstructured files scattered throughout your organization. Non-compliance can put your organization on the hook for heavy fines and on the regulators’ radars in the future.

Using Unstructured Data and Keeping It Secure

By 2025, 200+ zettabytes of data will be in cloud storage around the world. Without proper organization and analytics, big data is just a set of numbers taking up zettabytes in the cloud. Data is only as useful as the ways it can be understood. Ingesting and automating the data with a proper analysis tool can help provide meaningful insights to make decisions and strategize for growth. 

As my favorite childhood superhero said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Unstructured data provides power and requires responsibility. The amount of data is increasing exponentially and in order to remain successful, organizations are going to have to find ways to securely store and use this data. 

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