Whose Data is it anyway?

To Death and Taxes, we can now add data as a third factor that is always with us. In our digital era, supermarkets use loyalty cards to keep data on our purchases. Web sites track our interests to target adverts at us and we hand over data rights to social media companies.

Add to that government records, and each of us create or have created about us a huge volume of data about us during our lives.

I’m looking for a reasoned guesstimate of the amount of data per individual a child born this year will accumulate in a lifetime. Any ideas would be welcomed!

The ownership and value of that data is complex. The cost of maintaining it is enormous. Most importantly, quality control of our personal data set is very poor.

I still get paper mail from my last four addresses, even though the first was 11 years ago.

As more and more of our data become electronic only, then the challenges will produce some difficult choices for society.

Many people give surplus books, CDs and DVDs to charity shops. That source of income is likely to dry up for the sector. We generally don’t "own" our music or reading anymore, we lease a right from the owner, normally for a particular platform.

My physical collections are insured for thousands as that is what it would cost me to replace. I can leave them in my will as a legacy (if I dislike anyone else enough to inflict my tastes). But what becomes of my digital collections? As far as I can see, there is no residual asset.

Yet while I am alive there are many people who think that “owning” information and data about me and you is of value and will pay for it.

Starting from first principles, it seems to me that the only long-term viable assumption is that the presumption should be that data about me belongs to me. The consequences of it not being accurate fall on me, as they do now, but I’d be in a better position to do something about it.

In my lifetime, data has gone from being a scarce resource to being abundant if not overwhelming. It seems to me that trying to evolve our current notions of ownership forward will prove politically and economically insoluble.

Now, if my principle is right, I could bequeath my health record to research as well as organs. My health record may have value to my children in their lifetime. It does not cease to be an asset on my demise.

It is not that personal ownership is without moral hazard. In the case on enduring power of attorney, what rights would a carer have over the data?

Instead of retailers building up huge databases of expensively constructed data, we could move to permission -based marketing. They could ask permission to see subsets of my data to see if I am suitable target. I’d find that easier than the spam mountain. It would save suppliers a fortune.

Having just renewed my travel insurance, guess what I’m being targeted with? Yes you guessed it, travel insurance!

But of course, Facebook et al have their valuations based on the collective value of the data asset. So, which way will it go?

The signs are there that the move could happen. Mydex is one early start up in the personal information ecosystem space. A recent pilot shows what’s possible.

The hacker attacks on various networks this year temporarily raise awareness of the vulnerability of huge databases of personal information.

This area of information privacy and sharing is prone to occasional scares and panics. At some point, I suggest that we will see society tip away from today’s assumptions towards the personal model.

When, I don’t know. The hardest things to predict as MacMillan observed years ago are "Events".

The impact on the valuation of intangible assets will be considerable in many companies’ books, not just social media.

The more I think about it, the more I think it is inevitable, but the transition may be hard and uncomfortable for many. I think it may be sooner rather than later. Let’s see.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

See all posts by Chris Yapp

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