Do you know how much your personal data is worth?

Duncan MacRae is former editor and now a contributor to TechWeekEurope. He previously edited Computer Business Review's print/digital magazines and CBR Online, as well as Arabian Computer News in the UAE.

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Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to storing and sharing your own personal data, says Jake Ronay, director of planning at provider of psychographic audience data, VisualDNA

Today the Internet is powered by naivety. We reveal something private about ourselves every time we go online, without even realising it. It’s in what we Google, in what we hashtag; every day we use dozens of ‘free’ online services, not really understanding what their true cost is. The number of people and businesses we are exposed to annually is significant; all these online interactions build up to create a rich digital picture of who we are – information that, taken collectively, is of huge monetary value.

On June 27, 2014, The Economist ran an article, ‘Who Owns Your Personal Data? The Incorporated Woman’. The article described Jennifer Lyn Morone, an American living in London who is taking on the corporations that make a living from harvesting personal data. To regain control and ownership of her identity, she has become involved in an experiment to establish the value of an individual in a data-driven economy.

data sharingThe concept of consumers controlling their identity is not new, with the first real attempt in the UK at enabling consumers to control their data back in 2000. Digital certificates were successful in many ways as they were highly secure, but the policy ultimately failed with no more than 10,000 issued. There was much discussion of the reasons for failure such as the costs and liability, but the overriding factor came down to human behaviour and the need for convenience. At the time it was understood that this natural human desire would mean that people would give away their security, privacy, identity and data in order to access online services in the most convenient way possible. To this day, this has been the bedrock of the data driven economy that has propelled the powerhouses of Facebook, Twitter and Google.

However, while businesses recognise the value of this detailed information, so do hackers. And while the issue is being raised in the media, the public remain largely oblivious to the true value of their data. The information economy worryingly opens them to abuse, and is driven by naivety. Warning the public about the dangers of online fraud is helpful, but ultimately we need an internet that respects the data of its users. The most recent example of an infringement of this personal data is the hacking of iCloud accounts owned by high-profile individuals. Needless to say, you don’t have to be famous to suffer this kind of cyber-attack.

Government legislation: What’s being done?

Over the past 14 years there have been many attempts at solving the identity problem on the internet and there is a distinct recognition that there is a problem that needs to be solved. However, there remains an ingrained inertia due to the value of the status quo to large data-centric corporations.

The European Commission is currently taking steps to approve new data protection regulation, enshrining it in law. Lobbying on the issue has been significant since a draft publication was produced in 2012 and many compromises have since been made. However, the area where it is believed that there will be no negotiation surrounds consumers’ control of data, and the necessary transparency over its use. Companies that operate anywhere in the world that have data associated with EU citizens or businesses, will be governed by this law by December 2016.
In May this year the US Federal Trade Commission published a report on ‘Data Brokers – A call for Transparency and Accountability’ based on a fundamental lack of transparency surrounding the industry practices of data brokerage. The report states that ‘The Commission unanimously renews its call for Congress to consider enacting legislation that would enable consumers to learn of the existence and activities of data brokers and provide consumers with reasonable access to information about them held by these entities.’

This is a critical moment for the data sales industry and for the internet as a whole. Challenges and changes around data ownership and control are central to the entire principal of an open network as originally envisaged by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. That this concept has been eroded by fraudsters on the one hand and legal but often uncomfortable approaches to data ownership by corporations on the other, points to a fundamental change in the way the internet is managed being on the horizon.

And yet the idea of understanding that is promised by the internet is hugely compelling and exciting, and it is important that in a rush to legislate, the potential for big data to make big changes in people’s lives – from driverless cars to personalized content to improved healthcare – is not also lost. Fundamental understanding of individuals is the foundation of meaningful internet interactions. The concept of better understanding in itself may seem like a simple idea, after all it has no obvious requirement for improvement, nor does it appear to involve any technology to create a shift. However, there is a fundamental need for online users to better understand themselves and the data they share. Individuals need to own their digital presence online and take greater responsibility for their own online security as a whole.

Driving change: Consumers in control

That’s the world we need to start building – a world where data can be traded ethically. A world where users have the freedom to control their own data, to say who they share it with and how it gets used. Whenever someone uploads a picture, tags a photo or shares their thoughts with the world, they can trust where that information is stored. Wouldn’t that be a more empowering model for both businesses and consumers? Where everyone could express themselves freely without fear of their data being abused? And because that data would be volunteered with permission, it would be of a much higher quality than anything that’s currently mined.

By sharing our data in a secure and transparent way, all of us will be able to benefit – from an Internet where individuals don’t have to incorporate themselves as companies just to protect their data.

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