Who Owns Your Data (and Who Should?)

First published January 23, 2104 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

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

I think we’re all on the same page when we say there is a tidal wave of data that 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” – which create data. We interact socially through digital channels – which create data.  We entertain ourselves with online content – which creates data. We visit a doctor and have some tests done – which creates data. We buy things, both online and off, and these actions also create data. 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 a eco-system that is rapidly multiplying and, in its current state, is incredibly fractured and chaotic. But, as Simon Jones rightly points out, there is significant value in that data. Marketers will pay handsomely to have access to it.

But what, or whom, 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 is 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 lays the quantifiable footprint of our lives and, like all data, it can yield insights we may never gain elsewhere. In the right hands, it 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 that are 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 they 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 the question – who should have the right to create that picture of you – you – or a corporate data marketplace that exists beyond your control ?

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