Who Owns Your Data -- And Who Should?

Last week, I talked about a backlash to wearable technology.  In his comment, Simon Jones pointed to a recent post where he raised this very pertinent point: your personal data has value. Today, I’d like to explore this issue further.

I think we’re all on the same page when we say a tidal wave of data will be created in the coming decade. We use apps -- which create data. We use/wear various connected personal devices -- which create data. We go to online destinations -- which create data. We interact with an ever-increasing number of wired “things," we interact socially through digital channels, we entertain ourselves with online content -- ditto. Not to mention the times when we visit a doctor and have some tests done, or we buy things, both online and off. Pretty much anything we do now, wherever we do it, leaves a data trail. And some of that data, indeed, much of it, can be intensely personal.



As I said some weeks ago, all this data is creating an ecosystem that is rapidly multiplying and, in its current state, is incredibly fractured and chaotic. But, as Jones rightly points out, there is significant value in that data. Marketers will pay handsomely to have access to it.

But what -- or who -- will bring order to this chaotic and emerging market? The value of the data compounds quickly when it’s aggregated, filtered, cross-tabulated for correlations and then analyzed. As I said before, the captured data in its fragmented state is akin to a natural resource. To get to a more usable end state, you need to add a value layer on top of it. This value layer will provide the required additional steps to extract the full worth of that data.

So, to retrace my logic, data has value, even in it’s raw state. Data also has significant privacy implications. And right now, it’s not really clear who owns what data. To move forward into a data market that we can live with, I think we need to set some basic ground rules.

First of all, most of us who are generating data have implicitly agreed to a quid-pro-quo arrangement: We’ll let you collect data from us if we get an acceptable exchange of something we value. This could be functionality, monetary compensation (usually in the form of discounts and rewards), social connections or entertainment. But here’s the thing about that arrangement: Up to now, we really haven’t quantified the value of our personal data. And I think it’s time we did that. We may be trading away too much for much too little.

To this point, we haven’t worried much about what we traded off and to whom, because any data trails we left have been so fragmented and specific to one context, But, as that data gains more depth, and, more importantly, as it combines with other fragments to provide much more information about who we are, what we do, where we go, who we connect with, what we value and how we think, it becomes more and more valuable. It represents an asset for those marketers who want to persuade us -- but more critically, that data  -- our digital DNA -- becomes vitally important to us. In it lies the quantifiable footprint of our lives. And, like all data, it can yield insights we may never gain elsewhere.

In the right hands, this data could pinpoint critical weaknesses in our behavioral patterns, red flags in our lifestyle that could develop into future health crises, financial opportunities and traps and ways to allocate time and resources more efficiently. As the digitally connected world becomes denser, deeper and more functional, that data profile will act as our key to it. All the potential of a new, fully wired world will rely on our data. 

There are millions of corporations more than happy to warehouse their respective data profiles of you and sell it back to you on demand as you need it to access their services or tools.  They will also be happy to sell it to anyone else who may need it for their own purposes. Privacy issues aside (at this point, data is commonly aggregated and anonymized), a more fundamental question remains: Whose data is this? Whose data should it be? Is this the reward companies reap for harvesting the data? Or because this represents you, should it remain your property, with you deciding who uses it and for what?

This represents a slippery slope we may already be starting down.  And, if you believe this is your data and should remain so, it also marks a significant change from what’s currently happening. Remember, the value is not really in the fragments. It’s in bringing it together to create a picture of who you are. And we should be asking this question: Who should have the right to create that picture of you -- you, or a corporate data marketplace that exists beyond your control?

4 comments about "Who Owns Your Data -- And Who Should? ".
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  1. Aaron Goldman from Mediaocean, January 23, 2014 at 2:55 p.m.

    Another good thought-provoker, Gord!

    I've been noodling on this hairy meatball for years and don't think anyone's figured out the recipe.

    In 2008, I tried auctioning off my personal data on ebay (anonymously, of course) and sold it for $355. Alas, it wasn't a very scalable solution. :)

    More here:

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 23, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.

    Who would give you the creeps if they controlled all of your personal data ? What do you think they could do with it ? Would you trust the Chinese government ? Would you trust white supremacists or a fascist group ? How do protect yourself ? Are you worth a 20% discount ? Are you worth millions ? What is your value ? It is becoming if it hasn't already an all or nothing life. Do not track will become more worthy and advertisers will still find a way to get their messages out.

  3. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, January 24, 2014 at 6:57 a.m.

    Let's start with some older types of data - news stories and journalism. If a photographer takes a picture of me, is this "my data"? No - the copyright belongs to them. If an author writes a story about me, is this my data? Again no - the copyright belongs them. So who should have the right to create photographs and articles and report news - me, or a corporate system called "journalism" that exists beyond my control? I'm hoping you'll choose journalism and *that's* the real slippery slope here, because none of us would like the results of giving individuals a legal veto over "data" collection.

  4. Steve Plunkett from Cool Websites Organization, January 24, 2014 at 10:40 a.m.

    I love that we are living in an age where we can post erroneous information to throw off personally applicable data. =)

    Do you still use foursquare and do check-ins.. if no.. backlash theory proven.. =)

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