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Who owns your data? Defining data as a personal asset is the first step towards truly owning it

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wright Studio)

Technology has transformed nearly every corner of our world, including our definition of the value of data. Businesses place their focus on user information because they rightfully view it as a crucial gateway towards profit. And yet, when it comes to how we as individuals view our personal data, things are different. Though our data may be worth quite a lot, many of us still think of it as free or worthless. We might be slightly hesitant at the thought of someone accessing our information, but it is far from how we would feel about someone breaking into our apartment, for example. This vague, intangible concept of worth has yet to sink in. When a “digital window” is being broken we do not feel nearly as concerned as we should be, even though it leads to every part of our daily lives.

Why does it matter? Because we get what we bargain for, and how we perceive our data greatly influences how it ends up being treated. The uncertainty around how it should be handled has led to the disturbing climate in which companies and organisations are able to collect, use and trade personal information almost uninterrupted, even after data privacy regulations have been put in place, such as the GDPR and CCPA.

Sharing isn’t really caring

The current landscape of data privacy has many implications, starting with the topic of progress. We live in the era of new economy models. The sharing economy of Uber, WeWork, and Airbnb; the gig economy of Fiverr, and more. In order for us to embrace new approaches in the world of data, we first have to establish the ground rules of defining it as our own. Would you rent your apartment on Airbnb if you couldn’t control your tenant’s ability to sublet it to third parties? No, because that would be dangerous. The same goes for our information.  

There are already a few companies out there proposing different solutions based on our willingness to share information with companies. These solutions may work, but they will never happen before we understand the valuable nature of data first. The current uncertainty regarding ownership is holding back the future of data management.

Some companies make the mistake of assuming that they can only benefit from this vagueness, when in reality, they too lose quite a bit. This lack of progress in defining data ownership is limiting everyone, creating a trust crisis instead of lucrative collaborations.

Another issue worth addressing is security. When we know that something is owned by us, we make an effort to protect it. We lock our front doors, buy car insurance, and put our jewellery in the safe. If we understood how important our information really is, we and everyone else handling it would take things far more seriously and the daily breaches and leaks would at the very least improve. Not knowing what’s going on with our data or even fully understanding that we own this valuable asset turns many technologies into every hacker’s fantasy.

Finally, we as individuals have a lot to gain from this reclaimed ownership, not just because our data will be safer, but because we will be able to use it for our own personal growth. Instead of only companies analysing our behaviour to draw conclusions and create better ads, with the help of technology, we too will be able to analyse our own behaviour and learn valuable lessons about ourselves, like monitoring our consumption and distribution of data to become digitally wiser.

Recalculating route

There’s plenty we can do to turn things around.

We must focus on market education and awareness in order to reclaim, or rather determine, ownership over the information trail we leave behind. The starting point should be educating ourselves and learning as much as we can about who collects what and how. After learning this interesting information, we can help share the process with others through the social media platforms that were built on the grounds of our data. Ironic, but efficient.

We can assume that regulation will have a lot to do with this process, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Laws and courts have a lot to contribute when redefining assets and boundaries. They also serve as a written reference for individuals and businesses who aren’t sure what is or isn’t acceptable.

It’s important to keep in mind that tech companies interested in our data are not the enemy. They play with the cards they are given in a new and unfamiliar playground, and they, too, have a lot to gain from a new trust-based relationship with users. By creating a trusting relationship between consumers and businesses, everyone with benefit and will provide the consumer with the ownership over their personal data should have been there from day one.

Gal Ringel, co-founder and CEO, Mine (opens in new tab)

Gal Ringel is the CEO and co-founder of Mine, a company focused on empowering internet users to know who holds their data and get to decide how it is used.