The currency of human data

Data is a valuable asset. With the promise of “free” Internet services, a handful of companies have exploited it.

by Alexander Renz

Big data 21 October 2019

Along with our data, these platforms have created high-security prisons, which entrap and enslave us. Our privacy and individual freedom is violated. Companies have created detailed profiles on each and every one of us, not only to predict our next actions, but to shape those actions. Our thinking and behavior is digitally-engineered and manipulated. Our societies are divided and our democracies are at risk. How do we get out of this mess? How do we regain our freedom? How can we change the status quo and fix a system that is fundamentally broken?

We can agree that our world is better when human rights are protected, but passing laws to protect citizens’ rights first requires acknowledging a violation of rights. Unfortunately, people have become accustomed to a world where they don’t have control over their identities and data. But once you are directly impacted by identity theft, this problem shifts from abstract to reality. Like being one of 147 million US residents who were impacted by the Equifax hack.

Surveillance capitalism

The era of ‘surveillance capitalism’ began in 1968, when, despite public protests, credit agencies like Equifax began linking consumer data with government-issued Social Security Numbers (SSN). Unless one opts out of the financial system, there is no way to get away from this situation. The 2017 Equifax hack compromised the personal data of half of the US population — and for those unlucky citizens, the impacts of this compromised data situation might be experienced for decades. What’s surprising is that Equifax says that only “customer” data was compromised, however, I was never a customer, nor have I ever knowingly done business with the company. 

The advent of advertising-led Internet and mobile computing and the sophistication and invasiveness of ‘surveillance capitalism’ has reached a level that was likely unimaginable in 1968. Internet service companies, such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent have become the most valuable and powerful organizations in the world by turning our data into a product. What do we own? We own nothing. We gave up the rights to our data and privacy when we accepted these platform’s terms of use. The case of Equifax and online platform monopolies makes one fact clear: We as humans must own our data, or take back “self-sovereign data.” 

What is Self-Sovereign Data?

Imagine a new world where data is owned and controlled by the people who create and embody it. That is self-sovereign data where humans have ownership and control over their identities and data and this is seen as an irrevocable human right. 

If we rely on a few companies to control all of our data and use that to algorithmically feed us only the information deemed most relevant for us, we are staring down a barrel, while a few monopolists have their finger on the trigger. In a free society, we need to give humans a choice about how they will participate in the digital world. 

Does your digital footprint make you nervous? That is probably because you don’t know what data about you is out there and how it is being used, or exploited. But imagine a world where you own and control your data, where you are no longer nervous about your digital footprint, and see it as a valuable asset. 

Every piece of data about you — like websites that you visit, your searches, heart rates from your smartwatch, and how you drive your car — is a valuable asset that should be stored in your personal data vault. This vault would automatically collect information from the devices and services that you use through APIs, and put it in a securely distributed file-storage system to create an ever more valuable data set that belongs to you — and only you would hold the keys to it. 

How can we create value from personal data? 

If data was considered a new asset class it could be grouped across different personas, like financial data, health data, mobility data, and so forth. You could also aggregate select data into individual data pods, or secure data containers that could be described with metadata. These data pods would hold specific data, which is relevant for certain use cases. 

This would get us away from a model where we have to accept one-sided terms and conditions where we “consent” to giving away the rights to our data. Sharing a photo wouldn’t mean granting a company access to all of the photos on your phone. With data pods, you could create secure data containers and only grant business partners access to specific data, for specific cases, and during specific time periods. 

For example, imagine if you were looking for cheaper car insurance? You could give a data pod access to “vehicle” which would hold your vehicle identification number, model, year, and mileage. Another data pod could hold data such as how many miles you drive per year, and if that is mainly in urban areas, highways, or country roads. If you believe in usage-based insurance, there could be a specific data pod with your driving behavior. You could invite select insurance providers to make you a competitive offer based on this data, that — as defined in a smart contract — you make accessible to them only for the purpose of a proposal. You could invite four different carriers to give you a quote, and as soon as you select an insurance provider, the data access for the other three would be revoked automatically. 

You could think of such data pods as tangible assets that you could own, trade, and program. 

How would you monetize a data pod? 

Today, data is a product we can’t sell, and a currency that we can’t spend. The predominant business model in the World Wide Web today is an advertising-based, “free” service. We give away our data in exchange for free services and that is a problem. 

Facebook, Google, and others essentially eliminate the market mechanism to put a price on data. They hijack our data, mine it, and sell our attention in the form of targeted 1:1 business advertising. So, not only don’t we have control over our data. It has also become a currency we can’t spend.  

We need to think about data as a fungible asset with a market price, just like a barrel of oil. And for that, we need to standardize how we describe, and create a market mechanism for how we price and trade data. Consumers should be able to offer their data. Brands should be able to discover that data using metadata, and make offers to access individual data pods in exchange for tokens. 

Data pods could not only help you regain control over your data as a valuable asset. They could create a new unit of measure and use tokens to turn our data into a fungible currency. 

The monetization of data is an important tool to create a data economy that benefits all. But making money from our data is only one aspect. We can use our data to train our personal AI. Its only purpose would be to improve the state of the world in the interest of greater good. Now we all benefit from our personal data. Now we can all win in the future data economy. 

What is more, most companies will also win in this model. By embracing self-sovereign data, corporations can create friction for platform monopolies whose business model is based on collecting user data. At the same time, trusted companies and brands can suddenly get access to personal data that is beyond their reach to become more relevant for consumers and drive engagement. In addition to that, regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) require companies to obtain consent from users to process their data. With data pods and smart contracts, brands get verifiable proof that a consumer provided that consent. 

It sounds counterintuitive at first, but if you think about it, by giving consumers control over data, everybody wins — with the exception of platform monopolies that hijack and hoard our data. A few years ago, Google said that privacy was dead. A few weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg said that “The Future is Private.” The problem, however, is that a future where consumers own and control their data is completely at odds with these companies’ business models, and when you review privacy settings, you see how complicated they are. 

This ongoing debate is shifting the way we as a society think about data and privacy. In a few years, we will look back at surveillance capitalism in the same way that we see smoking inside offices and restaurants. If we get these three pieces of the puzzle right — regulation, social ethics around the use of data, and new technologies — we will see a movement develop that will change the world for the better. And in fact, most corporations should also become passionate advocates of such a model. Self-sovereign data should be a human right.