Who Has Rights to What Data?

If you are a farmer in the US, there’s a good chance you are leasing a big portion of your land from an absentee landlord. The relationship between landlords and farmers has been pretty solid for decades, sometimes even generations. So imagine a startup looking at all the landowners and wanting to disrupt this staid market by finding a way to get more farmers to bid on the land available to lease. Admittedly, the real disruption is to the farmers who suddenly find themselves in a bidding war with some unknown competitor for the land they’ve leased for years. But here’s the deal: not all land is equal. Some plots produce a higher yield than others. So to maximize profits, this new startup called Tillable, can advertise comparable yields. How do they know that? Farmers collect all kinds of data on the land they work. Tractors are satellite-guided and pesticides and fertilizers are dispensed based on sensors in the field to get the match best for yield. All this data is managed and analyzed through a third-party. All a company like Tillable would have to do is buy data through the third party and adjust lease prices accordingly. Tillable denies doing this. But it certainly is possible. So it raises the question: Who has rights to that kind of data?

Think about a hospital and all that patient data.

Remedies are prescribed based on an aggregate of patient data. Normal levels of say HDL or white blood cells are determined by statistics. That means a lot of data has to be looked at in order to come up with those normal levels. So should hospitals own your medical records in the name of improving health care?

Marketers have collected data for years, sometimes in shady ways. Think of the new car parked in a shopping mall with those little pads of paper: “Enter here for your chance to win a free car!” You write down your name and email. The car is never really awarded, but the list of emails is sold over and over to online marketers.

We hate it when our data is used to exploit us, but how about when it is used for the good of humankind?

The answer is in the motivation of the collector. And that means the choice should be up to us, the users. We should determine what we share and what we protect. This is new ground in the age of free data collection, a paradigm shift in the way we view ourselves, our identity, and the value of our input.

And in order for each of us to have the control we want, we have to have the right tools. That means on-off switches at the hardware and software level. Our devices just aren’t designed that way. Every manufacturer, from Apple to Google, is looking for ways to add to their bottom line. So they leave backdoors open that collect data. It’s up to the user to close doors, and not all of them can be closed. The final say on settings is determined by the manufacturer. So we are stuck with our data leaking out somewhere, and sometimes indiscriminately.

The key to any door should be the individual. Think about it. Your fingerprint and your face should be the only thing that opens an account and setting. And with you as the key, you should be able to determine which doors open and which ones stay closed. So if you want your medical data and not your patient data to go to the American Heart Association, you can do that. And if you don’t want ads hitting your phone for heart-healthy meals, you can block those. If you don’t want your data on a centralized cloud, you should be able to push it to a decentralized storage system. It’s all about user freedom, the right to use and share and store and protect your data any way you choose.

The key is you.