Inside 1to1:Privacy

Valuing, protecting and commoditizing your personal information: Is "data banking" the answer?

June 14, 2010

By Jennifer L. Saunders
Questions ranging from concerns over the use of personal information in behavioral advertising to who should own the wealth of data that "lives" on sites and in caches across the Web have inventors, researchers, privacy experts and others wondering what the Internet landscape will look like in the future. The debate is in full swing as to whether the answer lies in more regulation or personal control to manage all the data that is stored online about everything from our health and education to our purchases and preferences. Others, meanwhile, suggest the right choice is simply to make all that information go away.

For those who propose a user-centric model of data banking aimed at commoditizing the wealth of information we put "out there" via social networking sites, online financial transactions, Web searches and even digitized municipal and educational records, the concept focuses on users retaining ownership and control of their online information.

"There's a fundamental problem with the way the Internet works now," Invention Arts Chief Scientist and Co-Founder Marc Davis told Inside 1to1: Privacy, explaining that when it comes to viable business models, companies and marketers must guess what people want in terms of targeted advertising. "It's a fairly inefficient system."

For example, targeted advertising on some social networking sites has raised concerns among privacy advocates and users alike and even has marketers questioning when use of information gathered online crosses the line. A report in The New York Times suggests that many advertisers who use "self-service system" advertising gather information from social networking platforms in an attempt to make their ads appear relevant to users.

"When it works, it's amazingly impactful, but when it doesn't work, it's not only creepy but off-putting," Tim Hanlon, whose advisory firm focuses on marketing innovations, told The New York Times. "What a marketer might think is endearing, by knowing a little bit about you, actually crosses the line pretty easily."

Instead, Invention Arts is exploring what Davis described as its "data banking and exchange" model for addressing information management and a viable business model for the Web.

"If user data is the currency of the information economy, then where are the banks?" Invention Arts asks, predicting that within the next 10 years, data transactions will have "massive new value" as user comprehension of how, when and where their data is used changes.

"Given regulatory and societal pressures, the ownership and control of user data is placed in our hands. We gain control of what we make and do online and in the world," Invention Arts suggests. "New legal and technical structures change the terms of service for the mobile ecosystem bringing about a range of new value creation and services based on the ownership, control, aggregation, and exchange of personal data (e.g., searches, interests, location, communications, social media, transactions, health data, etc.) by users and trusted intermediaries."

Pointing out that while privacy concerns are absolutely valid, Davis cautions that some regulations have the potential for limiting the way the Internet functions. Instead, he said, the focus should be user-centric, providing citizens with protection from damage by giving them the control over how much of their data they share and with whom.

"There's a massive exploitation and reappropriation of assets online," he said, suggesting that data banking "solves all sorts of problems" by increasing the economic viability of the Internet while giving users control over their own information by moving from a privacy model to a property model.

While questions abound regarding just how the economics of commoditizing online data would work, many individuals and organizations are focused on ensuring that individuals retain ultimate control of their data.

Gordon Bell, who co-authored Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything with fellow Microsoft researcher Jim Gemmell, advocates "life logging--recording everything on your hard drive or cloud store...Never delete!" But, he stresses, that information needs to be personally controlled.

"Data about us, held by institutions; e.g., health, finances should be freely available to us," he told Inside 1to1: Privacy. "For example, I resent having to pay to get my credit report! These guys are already making money from data they have collected about me."

To save or shred in an online world
Speaking at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit in Washington, D.C., on April 21, Prof. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, discussed a different aspect to online models based on users assigning value to personal data as a commodity. Mayer-Schönberger raised concerns that such a model would, in effect, mean more surveillance being built into networking systems if users are banking their data and assigning value to the various information they have online.

As he noted in an April interview with the IAPP, "Whoever in the future will control large swaths of our digital memory (Flickr? YouTube? Google?) will be able to change history."

Meanwhile, the Keeping Found Things Found (KFTF) project, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, focuses on another aspect of the data we create and gather: keeping information that we've found available when we want to access it later.

"Information found does us little good if we misplace it or forget to use it," KFTF's Web site notes. "And just as we must maintain a house or a car, we need to maintain our information--backing it up, archiving or deleting old information, updating information that is no longer accurate. In our digital world, advances in technologies of search and storage have far outpaced balancing advances in tools and techniques that help us to manage and make sense of our information."

When it comes to the ways personal information is stored, mined and used, the future of data management remains to be seen. But, as Amy Manus suggests in a recent report featured in ClickZ, personal choices regarding the sharing of sensitive information will continue to come into play regardless of the regulatory or privacy frameworks in place.

"Behavioral targeting is often scrutinized by consumers and government legislation for the tracking of personally unidentifiable information, currently taking place to better target advertising to the right user at the right time," she writes. "However, these same consumers are also offering up their own personal information all around the Web for marketers to create their digital footprint by openly displaying who they are, what they do, their shopping habits, preferences, friends, etc. If there is such a concern over privacy, then consumers need to be their own personal advocates."
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To share or not to share? The difference between "life-logging" and "life-blogging"

Anyone who has read or even heard about Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything is probably well aware that its focus is about the importance of recording what we do--creating a digital memory to supplement and enhance our human powers of remembrance. In their acclaimed book, Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell share their experiences with their "MyLifeBits" project at Microsoft in support of a practice they call "life-logging." However, these proponents of recording everything in an electronic realm are quick to point out that saving memories and sharing them are two very different things.

In essence, as Gemmell and Bell explored in their book and explained in recent communications with Inside 1to1: Privacy, "life-logging" requires privacy and control.

Bell explained that their work has shown that "e-memory is the ground truth" while "bio-memory contains meta-data and URLs to our e-Memories." Life-logging is the process of recording all of that information, whether on computer hard drives or in cloud storage, and keeping it personally controlled, he told Inside 1to1: Privacy. "Don't expose yourself to unnecessary risk."

The benefit of preserving memories in a digital format, he asserted, "manifests itself in work, health, learning, life and immortality."

But, Bell said, "We say no to blogging--where you spill your guts from wherever, whatever mental or physical state you are in."

In Total Recall, the authors suggest that those companies that can build trusted "Swiss data banks" for such information "will reap big rewards." And, looking to the future, the book suggests, "the younger generation ought to eventually see their casual approach to privacy as a mistake and scale back their public disclosures."

"We continue to be life-loggers not life-bloggers," Gemmell told Inside 1to1: Privacy, referring to an explanation on the Total Recall Web site where he explores the difference between the two.

"Logging my life into a private, secure e-memory sounds like a great idea to me. In contrast, I have absolutely no interest in sharing the complete details of my life with the world in a blog," Gemmell wrote. "I want to share a few of my e-memories with some of my friends and family, and even fewer memories with the world. My blogging will be extremely selective."

E-memory, Gemmell said, does not function like human memory, "but in terms of privacy and ownership, it deserves similar treatment. My hope is that society and law will come to recognize it as such. There is attorney-client privilege, and surely my e-memory deserves at least as much privilege."

--J.L.S.