Data privacy and owning our personal data

The last startup I worked on had a mission to enable individuals to take ownership of their personal data. As it stands today, our personal data belongs to businesses. These businesses are successful if they can analyze the personal data we give them, to manipulate us. For example, to convince us to buy a product through an advertisement. “Persuasion” sciences might be a better way to word it.

We give them data in exchange for the services they provide, like a photo sharing service that tags our friends and family.

The problem with this monetization model is that companies invest in new methods of collecting and monetizing your data instead inventing new services. This creates a vicious cycle. To be cool, or reduce the complexity of life, we give away our private information to new companies while the old companies realizing they are losing user engagement and the income associated with those users invent more creative methods to collect and monetize our data. 

The second problem is that the economics of this exchange is unbalanced. The more a data collector gains about us the more valuable that data becomes, but the services we received in exchange, sharing photos, sending friends text messages, consistently decrease in value. 

Knowing every text we’ve sent going back 10 years is valuable to a business somewhere. But the service we used to send text 10 years ago is now worthless. Would you pay $1 to send a text message to a friend on Facebook? 

Today texting as a service has almost no value to you, it once did, when we paid .10 cents a message (remember sms?) but now no one pays for text messages. Telecom companies give it away as part of their “unlimited” subscription plans.

In the ideal world I would have complete ownership of any data I generate. And I could share this data with companies or other individuals in an explicit exchange. In this model I’m incentivized to collect more of my own personal data because it has a value I can use to barter for services. The current model will only result in confrontations and legislation as the interest of businesses and consumers continue to diverge.

Scenario: I want to know who’s is single at the party I’m attending. To identify single people the service provider collects cell phone location data and combines it with other data sources that are proprietary to them. Because they are using these other data sources and some magic mojo only they have, I consider it a fair exchange and securely share the location data I collect from my phone.

But it doesn’t have to be a company, it can be a researcher or private individual. If a researcher believes he can cure your anxiety if he was provided with 3 months of health data from your smart watch, would that seem reasonable? In this theoretical scenario he will combine your data with health data from 2,000 other people who currently or previously suffered from anxiety to customize a solution for you.

Scenario: I want to know who drives the same route I do, or if in an accident, who owns the cars that were witnesses. Thinking ahead, I join a sharing network of dashboard cam users who share their dashcam footage and gps data in exchange for similar analytics. By combining all of these cameras together we can trace the locations of cars that have traveled past any of the 20,000 dashboard cam users that are a part of our network.  This will likely happen in the next five years.

On a related note, my personal interest lately has been computer vision. Preparing for a world where we rely on Google Glass type eyewear, I wonder, if we could record footage of our lives, 24 hours a day,  7 days a week, what would I learn about the environment and those we interact with? This was the idea behind Google Glass. They were early but we aren’t far off from an augmented reality that relies on machine learning to analyze live video feeds and instantiously provides us intelligence on what we are looking at in real time.

What we need is a GoPro Session. A camera small enough to sit on our belt buckle. I’ve been using various low budget cameras, including my car dashboard and my iPhone on the weekends or while out with my daughter. The iPhone and GoPro have been the most useful because of the amount of metadata they provide. Location, elevation, time, etc. 

In basic terms, I’ve been able to extract an image of everyone I’ve interacted with (outside of work) and overlay that on to location data. It’s taken me a few months in my free time, but I can now select a day or location and see a visual of everyone I (any of my cameras) saw that day. If I was a part of a network, similar to the car sharing network, how much more could I learn about those around me?

Broadly speaking, most of us have yet to grasp how dramatically our lives will be impacted by a world of cameras and machine learning. We have no insight into what data is collected because the systems that collect them are black boxes to consumers. If images of our face are now a new form of data, who owns this data? The collector or the collected?

Post navigation