The battle over data privacy in America

Efma feature

02 April 2020

Erik Rind, CEO of ImagineBC, has been at the forefront of the global data privacy debate for some time now and spoke with Efma’s Boris Plantier about the challenges for individuals who want control over their own data.


What happens to our data? Do we know what companies and particularly big tech are doing with them?

This is an excellent question. Somewhere around the millennium, a Faustian bargain was struck. Big tech started offering us “free” services such as email but left out that they planned to read and harvest everything we wrote into those emails. Can you imagine if the United States Post Office came out in 2000 and said, “starting tomorrow all mail will be free in exchange for us being able to open all your letters and read them”. The idea of mail being private is as old as our country, but it appears we were willing to sacrifice that to save $25 a month.

Over the past few years, we have certainly become aware of some of the companies that are harvesting our data and selling it for enormous profit. At the top of the list are Facebook, Google and Amazon. But it probably was surprising to the folks who signed up for a DNA ancestry test from 23andMe to find out that their data had been sold by the company to GlaxoSmithKline. Certainly, nobody had ever heard of Cambridge Analytica until the after the 2016 election. So unfortunately, I believe that the majority of individuals still have no idea exactly how many companies are harvesting their data or for what purpose.

Can data regulation like RGBD in Europe prevent them from doing whatever they want with our data?

A few years ago, I sat in on a legal seminar about using blockchain technology to record provenance of home ownership. In response to a question about governments accepting the legal rights of blockchain established provenance, the speaker said something very interesting. He said, “while blockchain provenance is immutable and unhackable, that doesn’t mean the folks with the guns have to abide by the provenance.” So, when we talk about regulation, we are talking about the folks who control the guns so the answer to this question is YES.

However, passage of such regulation would mean that government really wants to prevent big tech from having access. Big tech has very deep pockets and deep pockets help buy influence. So can the ordinary citizen count on government passing regulation that protects their data and also creates an environment where the individual can share in the profits of their data? So far, here in the United States, the answer is no. That’s not to say that there aren’t concerned and interested folks in Congress, it’s just that we appear to be a long way from being able to reach a consensus on the issue.

How can customers gain control of their personal data?

They can’t do it alone. Just like labor organized around the turn of the 19th century, we are going to need a similar type of movement to spring up here to act collectively on behalf of individuals. Think of this as a data union. An organization whose purpose is to either negotiate with the existing big tech companies on behalf of their membership or help their membership find alternative means for monetizing their data and intellectual property. What if tomorrow, all Facebook users went on strike and said, “we will no longer use your platform until you fairly compensate us for the data you are harvesting about us.” It’s hard to believe Facebook would call on the Pinkertons to bust such a strike, so their reaction would certainly be interesting. What this means is that it is still “We the People” who have the power to take back control of our personal information. We just have to want to do it and more importantly be willing to make the short term sacrifice necessary to accomplish the long term gain.

How can customers monetize their own data?

Again, individually it’s almost impossible. We need a new wave of technology companies that instead of behaving like Google and Facebook, will act as a moderator of individual data or MID. This is a term coined by Jaron Lanier in his excellent 3 part series on the future of our personal information. I highly recommend anyone reading this article to look up the piece and have a view. When such platforms become available, they will offer 3rd party marketers, advertisers and businesses a superior platform to communicate with potential consumers. It will be superior because the majority of the money spent by these 3rd parties would go directly to the consumer rather than Big Tech. The MID would be responsible for providing the same targeted technology Google and Facebook use, but in this model, the AI/ML technology would be used on behalf of the end consumer.

Keywords : Big data , Regulation , GAFA/New competitors

Geography : USA