Who, exactly, owns your data? This is a matter of contention, as tech companies, advocacy groups, and governments start to define who has ultimate power and control over our information.
In a digital economy, data is currency.
In recent months, we’ve seen a flood of headlines about personal data security, as Google, Facebook, and Apple strive to convince us—despite mounting evidence to the contrary—that their privacy policies and data management systems can be trusted by all users.
“Privacy shouldn’t be a luxury good,” wrote Google CEO Sundar Pichai in a 2019 New York Times op-ed.
There are real-world business implications when it comes to the future of data ownership. In most countries, “data ownership” has typically referred to the legal rights to intellectual property, or copyrights. Determining what can be done with the personal data at a company’s disposal, and under what circumstances, should be a topic of conversation in every boardroom.
Data governance may sound boring, but it should be a centerpiece of every corporate strategy. In a world where every device is smart and connected—essentially “paying attention” to you at all times—surveillance is constant and boundaries of ownership are unclear.
Those bits and bytes we constantly shed may originate from us, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily belong to us, which brings up thorny questions: Who is the legal guardian of our data? Do companies have the right to change end-user agreements without actively notifying users with a clear explanation of what is changing, and the potential impact? We could even go down a more philosophical road. What does owning a piece of data look like? Is “ownership” itself a misnomer, and does stewardship or guardianship better describe our relationship with data? What about your genetic data? If you take a 23andMe DNA test, who owns your genome? What happens to your enormous trail of data when you die? When it comes to IoT in our homes, is the data generated within our walls and physical spaces governed by privacy rights? Does the Fifth Amendment mean that wearables—our fitness trackers, connected bras, smart watches—can’t be used to self-incriminate us in court? How, ultimately, should we define privacy in a digital era?
These are questions that still must be answered collectively by companies, government officials, and, frankly, any living, breathing human being.
Initiatives spearheaded by former U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang, as well as projects at the World Economic Forum and United Nations, aim to create guidelines for data ownership. The big tech companies will continue to face regulatory scrutiny in the coming year, and investors are paying attention. Most of the focus is on antitrust concerns and privacy. Meanwhile, most people may continue to be oblivious to just how much data they’re generating, what might be done with it, and how it might be used against them.
Without careful thought and planning today, we could wind up robbed of a valuable currency we helped create.
Big tech companies (especially Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google), government agencies.
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