Privacy Is Just the First Step, the Goal Is Data Ownership

As soon as you connect to the internet, there is a vast surveillance infrastructure tracking your every move. Even the most hackery of hackers have trouble moving in complete anonymity.

For most of us, however, our brains assume our pre-internet intuitions are still accurate. That what we do in our own home stays private until we decide otherwise. We feel violated when we discover how much is known about our online activity.

In fact, this level of surveillance is quickly taking over the physical world. Voice assistants listen to our conversations, our location can be determined by analyzing disruptions in our wifi signal, our phones track our every move. There are varying levels of difficulty to acquiring all of this data about us, but it's possible to get everything.

Why This Is a Problem

I listen to Leo Leporte on This Week in Tech every week, and his refrain to this concern is: "So what? I've got nothing to hide." And his guests struggle to explain what the material consequence is to him. He says he gets cool products that improve his life and he doesn't care what these device makers know about him. Guests say it's creepy, that it's a slippery slope, etc. All stuff I agree with but it doesn't do much to address the skeptic's point.

Privacy for privacy's sake is a weak argument, and privacy advocates should abandon it.

The real issue here is data ownership. A news story from The New York Times is freely accessible to anyone, and if someone takes that story and tries to make money off of it, we all acknowledge this is stealing. Yet if Facebook takes your words, location, and preferences and sells them, this is not (yet) considered theft. Why not?

Well for one, there is no real way for you to monetize that data on your own, so it's hard to say a company stole X amount of money from you. Also, our limited understanding of the technical aspects of these products has led to us generally assuming that the tools generate the data, not us.

Your Digital Orchard

Let's say you have an orchard of apple trees, but you yourself don't really have a use for apples. You just let them ripen and fall to the ground. But let's also say, for some reason all your friends are really interested in the status of your apples. They like to compare them to their apples. They feel like this is a way they can stay in touch with you.

Then a new company called Applebook comes to your house. Applebook says, "Hey, your friends Joe and Jane sent me over here to show you their apples. Want us to take yours over to show them?"

"Sure," you say. "That'll save me the trouble."

"Great," says Applebook. "We'll let you know what they think."

Applebook provides a great service to the neighborhood. Everyone enjoys knowing how everyone else's apples are doing. What they look like, how theirs compare. The best part is, Applebook is absolutely free!

Meanwhile, Applebook has a growing warehouse of apples. Once they're done showing everyone the apples, they put them in their warehouse. Not only that, but they have a bunch of apple buyers who regularly back their trucks up to the warehouse and take tons of apples away to use them however they wish. Applebook is raking in the cash.

Applebook regularly drops off fertilizer and new seeds to help you grow even more apples. Who in the neighborhood can grow the most? It's a fun competition. So fun, in fact, that people leave work during their lunch break to work on their orchard.

News reports start coming out that Applebook's warehouse was robbed! Some of the neighborhood's apples are gone! We didn't realize Applebook was storing all our apples, we thought they just threw them away. And hey, it looks like Applebook is selling our apples and making gobs of money off of them. We didn't realize those apples are even worth anything.

This is about where we're at now with our data. In the above story, the act of theft is clear, but when the same thing happens with data, we're having a hard time calling it like it is. Just like produce grown on your land, the data that we generate rightly belongs to you first, not the companies that collect it.

The equivalent to privacy in this story would be opting out of Applebook, which takes care of one problem, but then we've just gone back to your apples going to waste, unused. Their value has disappeared.

This Is Just the Beginning

To belabor the metaphor even more, apples are not the only thing we grow. We have tons of data trees bearing fruit that just falls to the ground uncollected and un-monetized. Health data, biometrics, DNA, thoughts and feelings, facial expressions, odors, etc. As Roger McNamee put it on a recent Sam Harris podcast, "The Problem With Facebook,"  these data companies are like governments declaring eminant domain over your data and claiming it for themselves.

We can't own our data if we're giving it away for free and without consent. Privacy tools are really just data protection tools so that you maintain ownership. What we don't have tools for is monetizing that data for an individual. That value still disappears when you increase your privacy.

One could make the argument that it's better to let it be captured now so that it can be recovered later via a lawsuit. I'd prefer to stop the bleeding and start building ways to capture all that data in a way that gives me control.

A Possible Solution

What we need is a digital locker that encrypts all our data and stores it for us. Then, if an app or company would like access to it, they would have to ask us directly. For that we would need a marketplace where potential customers for our data could browse our inventory and purchase what they need.

Right now the discussion is about privacy, but we need to move it forward to data ownership. That's the only way people who think they don't have anything to hide will really understand that they have something at stake. Only then will the market reward companies that build tools that facilitate the ownership and monetization of a user's data.

Cover image by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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