If data really is the new oil of the modern-day economy, and data miners have taken the place of coal miners, then you are the digital equivalent of the prehistoric vegetation when ended up being compressed into those rich coal seams below the earth’s surface. As you go about your daily life in the electronic age, you lay down new strata of personal data every time you use a mobile device, browse the internet or send a text message. Whether you know it or not, simply by living in a digital age and using connected devices, you are creating a valuable commodity – your personal data. You may not recognise its value, but plenty of firms do.
In mid-March this year, it came to light that Cambridge Analytica, the UK-based analytics firm, appropriated the Facebook data of more than 50 million citizens and mined this data for insights into their preferences and political leanings. Using sophisticated predictive algorithms, they created psychological profiles for these individuals and then used those profiles to target them with personalised political advertising during elections and referenda in a number of countries. Following this, Australia's Privacy Commissioner has now commenced an investigation into Facebook for possible breaches of Australia’s privacy laws.
This scandal shone the light on an industry which thrives on operating in the dark. The secondary market in personal information has been operating under the radar of public awareness for many years. This market is fed by a number of factors.
All of this data is captured online and, collectively, it forms a digital persona or digital alter ego of the individual who generated the data.
First, the widespread adoption of wearables and mobiles devices has facilitated the generation of detailed data on multiple aspects of our lives: our location, likes, preferences, buying habits, internet searches and browsing behaviour, our social and business networks and even our thoughts and opinions. All of this data is captured online and, collectively, it forms a digital persona or digital alter ego of the individual who generated the data. As the Cambridge Analytica story demonstrates, these digital personae are extremely valuable to companies.
However, it’s not the data itself that is valuable, it’s the insights which can be derived from these data which are sought after by companies. These insights are made available in part by the increasing accessibility of powerful cloud computing platforms which can crunch large volumes of data and also by the research and development which has been poured into the predictive algorithms that produce the insights.
The existence of millions of highly valuable digital personae raises the question of ownership. It turns out that if you read the end user license agreement of most major social network platforms, you will find that you own the data, but that you grant the platform the rights to use the data in almost any way they chose (subject to the privacy laws of the relevant country of course).
For example, here’s a quote from Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (as of January 2018):
You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings . . . You give us permission to use your name, profile picture, content, and information in connection with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us. . . By "information" we mean facts and other information about you, including actions taken by users and non-users who interact with Facebook.
With the market capitalisation of the major social networking platforms in the billions, individuals are starting to demand more than ad-laden free services.
There is a growing recognition that there is something fundamentally wrong with this model. Individuals are becoming increasingly aware that simply by using connected devices they are creating a valuable commodity, but, as the primary producer of that commodity, they are not being fairly compensated for the use of it. Currently, users receive free services such as social networking and webmail in exchange for access to their digital personae, but there is growing recognition that they deserve a larger slice of the pie. With the market capitalisation of the major social networking platforms in the billions, individuals are starting to demand more than ad-laden free services.
A number of grassroots not-for-profits have recently emerged dedicated to raising awareness of the use and abuse of personal information. The HAT Project (HAT standing for “Hub of All Things”) based out of Warwick University, is dedicated to enabling individuals to collect, control and combine personal information in a privacy-preserving manner. Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founders of the internet, is behind Solid, a project which aims to create true data ownership as well as improve privacy.
Government is also recognising that it has a part to play in regulating the use of personal information. In May this year, the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) will come into effect in Europe. Under GDPR companies deemed to be data controllers will be obliged to provide timely responses to requests for personal data deletion and also to be more transparent about how personal data is shared between third parties. Here in Australia, disclosure of data breaches has recently been made mandatory and the influence of digital platforms in Australia is currently being investigated by the Productivity Commission. In a previous report, the Commission recommended amendments to the Commonwealth privacy legislation as well as the creation of new legislation — a new Data Sharing and Release Act.
rather than being a dinosaur and giving away your personal data willy-nilly, it’s time to start demanding more tangible benefits in return for it
However, there is a school of thought that contends that government regulation can only go so far to protect access to citizen’s personal information. An alternative to government regulation is a market in which individuals can trade not their personal information per se, but the insights derived from that data. Known as a primary personal information market (PPIM), this system would allow individuals to manage access to their entire digital personae, and be compensated for granting access to aspects of it to certain companies. No such system currently exists but as people increasingly become aware of the value of their personal information the demand for such a market is likely to grow.
So rather than being a dinosaur and giving away your personal data willy-nilly, it’s time to start demanding more tangible benefits in return for it, more control over it, and more transparency about the ways in which it is being used.