We know what the future is going to be like in at least in one way: Everyone's data, no matter how personal, will be technically accessible.
When someone can figure out where you are by analyzing the reflection in your pupil in a photograph, or when we can deduce images of people around the corner by sensing the light on a wall – it becomes clear that the digital footprint we leave behind on a daily basis is too big to keep private.
You can't put the private data toothpaste back in the tube.
To me, these are not signs of an impending dystopia. They are evidence of the inevitability of a future that we can prepare for. For those of us paying attention, we have the equivalent of the Grays Sports Almanac from Back to the Future 2. So let's start placing some bets.
Privacy Is Impossible
For all of our future-watching and trying to predict the next economic wave -- in the mainstream we seem set to be blindsided by the fact that data is ultimately impossible to contain in any absolute sense.
A quantum computer could come along any day now that makes current encryption worthless. No one expects it to happen soon, but it's on the horizon. Perhaps this same computer can make better encryption, but how long before that better encryption is adopted by everyone?
Even with current encryption and privacy best-practices, the most knowledgable and technically advanced teams can make mistakes. How is the billing startup we pay $12 a month to expected to keep our data absolutely private at all times?
And setting aside human error or random chance, we've seen from stories like the ones mentioned above that the avenues to our data can be quite unintuitive, if not unimagineable. Certainly unpreventable.
Privacy advocacy that centers around limiting access to data is perhaps a good stop-gap measure, but will ultimately fall short of what people need and expect. Let's stop trying to plug the holes in the dam and instead build a hydro-power station – let's capture the value of the data we create as it flows from us into the world.
The New Gold Rush
Entrepreneurs and developers need to stop thinking of data protection as a technical burden that only has moral justification. Operating as if users own their data is a vastly unexploited, lucrative opportunity in the market.
In a future where all data is accessible, how can we make a world that we want to live in? Every answer to that question is a potential business.
Data ownership is the biggest counter-intuitive concept that will seem obvious in hindsight. Let's make the world better and make money in the process.
For example, in this near-future world I believe people will want a way to sell, lease, and/or license their data. So I'm building a data marketplace to allow them to do that. But that's just my particular idea and solution. If we all get on the same page about what the future will look like, we can all profit from it and also take control of how it is built.
If We Don't, the Wrong People Will
It's likely that the FBI, the CIA, and other countries' intelligence agencies are all planning for and living in this world. But instead of thinking of businesses that could help people profit from their data, they're trying to find technical and political ways to covertly capture that data for their own purposes.
Everyone has their own agenda, but consumers and entrepreneurs are lagging behind in their understanding of what the future will look like. We need to convince people that it's not a tinfoil hat, it's a helmet.
The messaging needs to change at all levels. Don't try to make people outraged that their privacy has been violated, we've seen that not enough people care strongly enough about that to act on it. Instead we need to show people that they're sitting on a pile of cash – one that only grows bigger over time.
In practice, this means skipping all the framing of laws and protections as 'privacy' and moving on to 'ownership' and 'control.'
If we know what the future will look like, we can start building businesses and products that leverage what people will demand in that future.