Why the Online Identity & Data Ownership Debate Matters
The Big Picture
We’re aware that the data we generate is “owned” (or at least maintained) by someone else – the government issues us our identification, the doctor’s office has our health records, the credit agencies know our financial history. We assume our information is private and secure.
But now with so much activity happening online and increasingly on mobile devices, we’re generating a digital representation of ourselves that not only expresses our interests, desires, needs, purchasing behaviors, and the range of social connections and relationships, but also the contextual information of our location in physical space and time.
This is important because we’re generating a detailed profile of ourselves that reveals much more about us that we may realize.
What is Revealed: Macro Level
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, The Really Smart Phone, discusses research conducted by scientists, and the interesting patterns of human behavior they were able to abstract from data collected from smartphones. For example, by analyzing people’s movement records, they were able to predict someone’s future whereabouts with 93.6% accuracy. They’re able to notice symptoms of mental illness, predict stock market fluctuations, and even chart the spread of ideas throughout society, revealing a “god’s-eye view of human behavior.” With billions of people on the planet now carrying a mobile device, we’re able to access data about human complexity that was simply not possible before.
What is Revealed: Micro Level
In a New York Times piece from the other day, Show Us the Data. (It’s Ours, After All.), professor of economics and behavioral science Richard Thaler writes about the vast amount of personal data that is being aggregated about us and sold to third parties.
In terms of consumption, this data is useful for companies in order to target you with highly personalized recommendations, advertising and offers. On a personally empowering level, it could potentially offer us a wealth of information about ourselves to assist us with intelligent decision-making. For example, by looking at medical records and family history, we might receive tailored recommendations for exercise plans or food choices. The problem is – we often don’t have access to this data.
What’s at Stake
There’s a lot of talk about “privacy” on the web right now, and I’m still not completely sure I understand the extent of the argument. If by privacy we mean security, and wanting protection of sensitive data like financial records or social security numbers, I completely agree. But if privacy concerns are around the fear of someone finding out about that bizarre fetish we have or the flavor of porn we prefer, I wonder how much that matters. While that information may be taboo in some circles, it’s actually infinitely less interesting than the data we reveal about ourselves publicly that’s being mined and sold online every day.
Most of the activity done online, from browsing websites to chatting with friends, is being recorded by someone. Your “private” conversations in Facebook are mined, as are your shopping habits on Amazon, or your preferences or personal connections on any number of services.
The issue with these things, moreso than that they are happening, is that we don’t have access to that data that we generate. Challenging this unfortunate reality was the big thrust that led to the formation of the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium, a coalition of individuals and organizations who realize what’s at stake if we don’t reclaim the data that is ours.
Essentially, by third parties locking in our “digital self” into each of their services, we are losing massive collective intelligence opportunites for innovation, value creation, knowledge building, and citizen engagement as a global society.
We have multiple accounts and multiple levels of relationships within and across those social networks. When we click around on sites we are leaving a trail of ‘digital exhaust’, defining our habits, preferences, curiosities, and explorations. We don’t have control/access/ownership of this data, but 3rd parties do. Each of these pieces, and all the contextual information around it, is INCREDIBLY VALUABLE, but currently fragmented, fractured, and scattered. Shouldn’t we have access to it ALL, so we can connect the dots and make effecitve and meaningful choices?
Why can’t I just export my data, activity, and relationships from each service, and be in control of who gets to see it, which parts they get to access, and how they use it once I give them permission?
Why isn’t there an easy way for me to have an overview of everything about me, and be able to selectively share information about myself, my interests, my capacities, my needs, or my resources?
The Future We Deserve
At the moment, commercial entities know more about our preferences and behaviors online than we do. With all the services out there that facilitate social interaction, there is still no easy way to connect with people with whom we share affinities, and then to effectively exchange information with them or collaborate in a meaningful way.
Our online identity and data *should* be our right to control, so that we are empowered to make better decisions about our lives and well-being, find potential collaborators or kindred spirits, or generally create more meaningful and valuable relationships. It’s worth asking:
What would a people-centric web look like?
What if it felt more like walking through a town commons and less like walking through a shopping mall?
How could identity and trust be built into the architecture of the internet?
To contain the length here, I’ll flesh out some ideas about all this in an upcoming post -
“A Framework for Building Online Intelligence”
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about identity and personal data ownership.