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My Data Universe: agency and control beyond possession and comprehension

I do not believe that privacy can be dealt with in isolation from the new realities of data as a whole, and the manner in which digitization blends personal information into the myriad of interactions it happens to be a part of.

It stems from this that certain personal data properties may prove highly useful to a given platform, as that is how the designers of such platform may have chosen to leverage them at scale, but this does not imply intrinsic value in such data. And I will not add to the “money for data” debate: I am fully against any means of perpetuation of the existing “dirty data” marketplaces — it is them, be it in ad tech or healthcare, who set the price for those who claim to be getting their “fair share”.

Separately, for all the appeal of Solid “pods” and other Personal Data Stores, there seems to be a conflict between them (requiring an ability to understand, capture, and contain such data) and the unlimited data flows that characterize the post-Internet world.

Many of us have long been searching for an alternative value proposition which addresses both our contemporary challenges (unlimited instantiation, birth at collection, varying degrees of abstraction, etc.), as well as the need to prevent the commoditization of a fundamental right to privacy. I believe such alternative would sit at the intersection of three elements: awareness, self-exposure and transformation.

We could call this a “Personal Data Universe”. (Besides the grandiosity demanded by an entrepreneurial perspective, the metaphor paves the way to a more effective visual representation.)

The Personal Data Universe refers to a vast and constantly changing collection of data points pertaining to our actions or mere being. Some of them stay close, frequently used and easily comprehensible. Others belong in the invisible edges of our tools and devices, where they are both born and directly consumed without external trace.

Under such premises:

  • We do not need to fully understand every piece of data that we produce, or the manner in which it feeds into a derivative data set (constrained or not by our individual, personal sphere). When it comes to agency, awareness may suffice.
  • We do not need to relate to a legal or social figure within reach, be it ownership or intellectual property, for it to be transformed into tangible value. But such value remains relative and subjective.
  • Individuals must be in a position to agree to (or directly seek) further collection and expose a given set of data points at will in search for such transformation.

As a way of representation, the Personal Data Universe contains three different types of data points:

  1. Data fully escaping our own awareness and thus beyond reach (in the absence of other parties fulfilling their transparency obligations where applicable)
  2. Data that enter our visible space but do not require storage or comprehension for them to feed into separate processes, or for other data controllers to leverage. As a matter of fact, it is in our interest to keep them where they are born, as that is where they will naturally grow and evolve (“the plants in their pots”)
  3. Data that remain easily understandable and hardly ever change or evolve in the absence of our own direct input (ideal candidates for local storage or “data wallets”).

As a result, I believe that people should be in full control over the manner in which they expose certain pieces of personal data (known or unknown, original or derivative) in the course of their interactions with services or suppliers, ensuring that they are guaranteed a basic understanding of the value resulting from such exposure in terms of convenience, enhanced customer service, or relevance.

I also find it very plausible that individuals choose to allow certain businesses to “read” a given set of personal data points in exchange for facilitating access to third party services, thus paving the way for journalism to break free from both ads and stand-alone paywalls.

Whether this alternative, and its effective articulation in terms of data-value exchanges, can be communicated to the public at large in plain enough terms for it to fly beyond our own intellectual enjoyment remains to be tested.

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