The Electric Rail that HP Touched

    September 11, 2006

If you walk along the BART tracks (Bay Area Rapid Transit, San Francisco’s version of mass transit electric-driven trains) you’ll see a big fence, covered with barbed wire, along with lots of signs that make it clear that if you cross the fence you’ll die. Why?

The electric rail.

It’s not lost on me that when I worked at Microsoft there were a few issues that people would tell me not to touch cause they’d cause trouble for me. How did that get communicated to me? “That’s an electric rail.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that electric rail metaphor today and why I am giving HP such harsh treatment. Privacy is an electric rail.

Let me explain. Big companies rely on our private data to make money. Verizon knows where and when I use my cell phone so it can charge me. At Microsoft if you attended the PDC you had to put your name and address and credit card number into the system so we could charge you and get you your ticket. At health care organizations they know even more detailed private information. And so on and so forth. Big companies have a lot of our data locked up in their data centers.

So, why did I care that HP’s board of directors pushed the boundary of where private information could be used? Because private data must be held sacrosanct. Private data is an electric rail. Use it properly and it will power your business. Use it improperly and you should get fired. There’s no other way to put it. It should be that clear. It IS an electric rail.

This is why I’m giving HP’s board of directors such a hard time (and will continue to do so). They touched the electric rail. You just can’t do that without severe consequences.

Note: the electric rail doesn’t care if you have a reason to touch it. You touch it, you pay severe consequences. Why does that need to be true? So no other company thinks of touching it in the future.


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Robert Scoble is the founder of the Scobleizer blog. He works as’s Vice President of Media Development.

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