For the first time in the company’s 40-year history – during which it became one of the world’s most consistently profitable software companies, pioneering big data analytic systems for governments, armies, schools, cities, and banks, among others – North Carolina-based SAS (Software Analytics Systems) is heading to Israel.
“One of the things I am doing here in Israel is shopping around for companies to partner with, and we are actually close to a deal, which we expect to be announced in the coming weeks,” said Wolf Lichtenstein, world-wide SAS General Manager and director of the software pioneer’s operations in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Israel.
What attracts SAS to Israel is its expertise in Internet of Things technology, said Lichtenstein during a visit to Israel. “We are involved in almost every endeavor you can imagine, developing analytics for a very wide variety of business, but we believe that IoT will top them all. This is a market worth not billions, but trillions. Israel is well-known as a center for data processing and big data analytics, network technology, and all the other components that go into IoT.”
Although officially established as a private company – one of the world’s biggest – in 1976, SAS’s roots stretch back to the mid-1960s, when researchers at North Carolina State University developed programs to help farmers analyze the effect soil, weather and seed varieties had on crop yields. Since then, the company has developed analytics for almost every industry, and acquired 19 companies (all of them in the US).
SAS’s engagement with Israel may or may not involve an acquisition – Lichtenstein wouldn’t say – but it will definitely be focused on IoT. “As a company, that is what we are interested in now, and that is what I am focusing on during my visit here.”
IoT devices, from smart faucets and washing machines to sensors in streetlights and fire hydrants, already collect huge amounts of information, “so the issue of sensor deployment and where data will be collected is pretty moot; it is being collected from all over, and it is being stored in the cloud,” said Lichtenstein. “The challenge is not collection, but analysis. Currently only about 20% of that data is being utilized, and as an analytics firm, it is our job to figure out useful ways to use this data.”
By “useful,” Lichtenstein means more than collecting information on which laundry detergent is being used how often to wash which clothes in order to figure out ways to get consumers to buy more expensive detergent.
“Public safety, cyber-security, safety, and many other issues are now at the top of the agenda for many governments and even corporations,” said Lichtenstein. “For example, we are working with car manufacturers to analyze data that is collected during the course of a ride to analyze safety issues – how a driver is conducting himself on the road, or ways to prevent accidents. We are putting the intelligence into the sensors themselves, winnowing the important data for specific safety needs.”
The same could be done – and is likely to actually come into existence – for public security. “We already have software that can predict, for example, the likelihood of specific crime rates, like auto theft, in specific areas. Most of our analytics yield accuracy rates of 96% or better,” said Lichtenstein.
The same thing could be done to help reduce the threat of terror – for example, cameras equipped with sensors analyzing data such as what clothing people are wearing, ferreting out who is wearing “inappropriate clothing” (like a too-heavy coat) on a hot summer’s day, indicating that they might be hiding something dangerous under that coat. While an observant security officer might notice that as well, the trick would be to figure out whether or not the individual is actually dangerous, or perhaps works in a butcher shop and spends a lot of time in a freezer.
“Tel Aviv is implementing a lot of smart security technologies, which makes sense given the security issues Israel faces.” Lichtenstein added.
Sensors are indeed everywhere, which makes many people – not just privacy advocates – uncomfortable. “I understand that completely,” said Lichtenstein. “People are concerned that the data can be used against them, either by hackers who steal it or the companies and governments that collect it themselves.”
For better or worse, there is no going back, added Lichtenstein – but the fact that data is being collected is not necessarily hazardous to political freedom.
“One trend that does not get discussed enough is the democratization of analytics,” said Lichtenstein. “As analytics moves to the cloud, the tools to understand data – and the data itself – become more accessible, meaning there is more opportunity for groups that seek to protect privacy to use data in that way.”
By analyzing the activities of a bank, for example, advocacy groups could stress their positive or negative behavior and recommend that those backing their cause patronize or boycott that institution.
“I know it sounds silly for someone like me, an executive at one of the world’s biggest data analytics firms, to say ‘trust me,’ but in truth, Big Brother is a myth. He’s more like a ‘little brother,’ anxious to please and afraid to offend,” added Lichtenstein. “It’s true that the notions of privacy are changing – what was private to my generation will not be private to my grandchildren’s, and it is impossible to predict what will happen. But if history is any indication, society and its people will work out a way to live with it.”