Wednesday September 02, 2020 |Notes

The value of data

There's been some pushes for individuals to retain more control - or even be compensated - for their data. It's well known that big tech companies use data advantageously to grow their businesses, and there's a faulty logic that presumes that value could be broken down to monetarily compensate the individuals that provide all of that data. Generally, the data is only valuable in aggregate, and when used the right manner.

There are a multitude of problems with consumers and users gaining control of data. Bhaska Chakavorti laid out three of these problems in an HBR article earlier this year, beginning with the fact that much of the data isn't 'actively' collected:

To start, data is intangible. We don’t actively hand it over. As a byproduct of our online activity, it is easy to ignore or forget about. A lot of data harvesting is invisible to the consumer — they see the results in marketing offers, free services, customized feeds, tailored ads, and beyond.

Besides the fact that data is not visible, much of data is only valuable to the platform creator. Without the participation of one individual, nothing changes on either side. The platform still has enough aggregated data from millions of other users, and the individual is unable to get any monetary value for the data. John B. Morris wrote about why owning data is actually the wrong approach, in part because of the mismatch of value on each side of the equation.

A property-based system also disregards interests besides property that individuals have in personal information. Consumers often benefit from freely providing information for use in a particular context, but they can suffer a range of privacy harms if the information is used in an unrelated context not contemplated when use of the information was licensed. At the same, imbuing property rights in personal information would affect sharing of data in many common contexts. In a simple purchase of a book from an online retailer, for example, the book title and subject could reveal highly personal information about the purchaser, but the retailer surely would have a right to retain and use its own business records about the transaction (including the title of the book).

As I wrote yesterday, we lost an insecure database to scammers demanding a bitcoin ransom. In our case, the value has a modest value to our project and no value to anyone else. There's a mismatch of value, not unlike that found on big tech platforms. Data is valuable, and that value is entirely subject to who holds it.