If you use a smartphone, or any online services, you are probably aware that some of your personal data is being collected. In the drawing above, our little orange man, let’s call him Joe, has connected with friends on Facebook. Facebook now owns the data: “who are the friends of Joe?.” Next, Joe watches a movie using his Amazon Prime Video account: Amazon now owns the data: “what movies does Joe watch?” When Joe buys something at Target using his credit card, Target now owns the data: “What is Joe’s credit card number?” When Joe uses Google Maps to navigate, Google now owns the data: “Where is Joe?” Joe’s doctor gives him a blood test and it shows lead poisoning, his Doctor now owns the data: “Is Joe healthy?” Joe visits a real estate site like Zillow and looks up the value of his home, Zillow is now the owner of the data: “Joe wants to sell his home.”
Some of this is good
None of this is bad on its face. We couldn’t live in today’s world without the convenience of credit cards, navigation software, and movies on demand. We wouldn’t know about traffic jams ahead if Google Maps didn’t aggregate our location data. But when all the data about you is out there and gets aggregated, it amounts to a loss of privacy. The bad part is that you have no control. If you want to use the apps, you must agree to their data policies – take it or leave it. And, like the frog in hot water, we get used to the idea of companies owning our data and sign up for more and more services. Some of these services are gathering data way beyond what is necessary and even selling it to advertisers for big profits.
If you want to watch a funny show, and get a bit of an inside look at why companies sell personal data – check out the HBO series Silicon Valley, Season 6, Episode 1. In this episode, the CEO testifies before congress about his fervent desire to keep customers’ data private, then returns to his company to learn that his largest department has been selling user data all along. Our data is so valuable to advertisers that companies simply can’t resist. If you don’t have access to HBO, check out this clip on YouTube which shows Richard’s testimony before congress: “The way we win is by creating a new, democratic, decentralized Internet. One where the behavior of companies in gathering and selling our data will be impossible. One where it is the users, not the kings, who have sovereign control over their data.”
How can we own our personal data?
The first step to a solution is to recognize that we have a problem. As long as we ignore the fact that companies are taking our data and profiting, the water will just keep heating up. Once we become aware, we will be open to alternative products and platforms.
Anything that we, the users, can do is just Band-Aids however. What we need is a new “democratic, decentralized Internet.” One that is not powered by advertising. It sounds like blockchain to me. A system where each user has their own block-ledger that stores our personal data. Then we own it and can authorize only particular companies to access it and only for particular purposes. As we go thru our digital days, imagine if all that data we generate is being scooped up by our own data vault instead of the companies. This vault would be our virtual identities. That vault would manage our identities and only give access as needed. All access is recorded in the blockchain.
Something like this is already in place in the government of Estonia. Check out this Ted talk What a digital government looks like. Estonia uses their own form of blockchain to allow your personal data to be recorded only once and the individual has complete control over that data. It is possible.