‘Why I believe we should own our own data’

Selfie: We all have a “data version” of ourselves. This Experian advert examines the risks.
by Sarah Gordon

The business editor of The Financial Times has been a writer and editor since 2001. She worked in finance before that, and began her career at the United Nations.

Mark Zuckerberg has apologised for not properly protecting Facebook data. But rows over how much companies know about us are still growing. Sarah Gordon says it’s time to take back control.

The boss of Telefónica put forward an interesting proposal recently. Customers, he suggested, should have control of their own data. They should be able to see how their data are used, and they should be able to take it with them on leaving the service provider.

To the journalists present, the proposal seemed radical. Why would Telefónica want to give our precious data back to us? We have become accustomed to the idea that data gatherers — whether a telecoms company, Facebook or an electricity provider — have first dibs on our information: what we do, how much we spend, where we go, what we watch, the food we eat, what music we like or the state of our health.

We have little idea what personal data companies own about us, what they do with it, or where they store it. It is profoundly disempowering.

It is comfortable, but dangerous, to be fed music we already like, or news that we want to read.

Most people believe they should have as much control as possible of their intellectual property or their physical selves. So why should someone else own our data?

There are, of course, good reasons why companies would resist handing back control. Whether it is targeted advertising, or a customised news feed, our data are manipulated to keep us loyal or to tempt us to spend money.

Dictating our preferences in this way, though, is something we should resist. It is comfortable, but dangerous, to be fed music we already like, or news that we want to read. It would be better if we could tell companies our preferences, broadening our interest and knowledge rather than forever narrowing it.

For many companies, the personal nature of customer data is not its most useful quality. Once anonymised and aggregated, data cannot be attributed back to specific individuals, but can still be used to develop products that respond to customers’ wants.

This could provide a possible pathway to future data control that pleases everyone. Several organisations are working on private accounts that allow individuals to keep their own data in one place and choose when to share the information.

The catchily named Hub of All Things means your personal data can be kept within a database over which you have full control. In future, you will be able to use a HAT to store your words, photos, locations, music and financial transactions — in short, your digital self — and exchange as much, or as little, of this self as you want.

New regulation coming down the road should give a boost to projects like the HAT. This provides a new opportunity for us to take back control.

This very opportunity, though, highlights the reasons why it may not be grasped. While customers get outraged when data breaches hand access to their information to hackers, they are supine when it comes to its original surrender. All of us “Accept terms and conditions” without the bore of reading them.

There is little push, anywhere in the world, by individuals to demand companies hand them back their personal information.

We are the first generation of people to give our information freely and in bulk to almost anyone who asks. We have allowed ourselves to be infantilised by the technology.

The co-founder of the Hub of All Things, Professor Irene Ng, believes we are the “lost generation” — in the sense that our data, handed over casually in return for new services that we desire, are lost to us forever.

But for future generations it is not too late to take responsibility and take it back.

This is an extract from an article published by The Financial Times. You can find the full version under Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Who should own the data about you online: you, or the websites you visit?


  1. Create an informative poster or leaflet which explains how your personal data is collected and used online.

Word Watch

A Spanish telecommunications company, which operates around the world. Its biggest brand in Britain is the O2 mobile service.
Factual information that has been collected or processed. In this case, personal information that has been collected by a company.
The social media platform has recently come under fire for its data protection, after it was revealed that data from 50 million Facebook profiles was handed to the data agency Cambridge Analytica without the proper permission.
Targeted advertising
For example, Cambridge Analytica used information about the “personalities” of Facebook users to produce political adverts designed to persuade them to vote for Donald Trump.
Customised news feed
When a social media platform like Facebook uses data about your past behaviour to show you posts it thinks you will like.
In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation, as well as proposed new ePrivacy legislation, will mean companies have to be much more transparent about what personal data they hold on their customers or users, and what they do with it.

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