Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Who owns your data? It's complicated

by Zoe Tabary | zoetabary | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 22 May 2020 10:02 GMT

This is a still from an interview filmed with digital rights expert Martin Tisne in London on March 11, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Claudio Accheri

Image Caption and Rights Information

As authorities roll out surveillance tools to track the coronavirus, the Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to digital rights expert Martin Tisne about who owns our data, what it's worth and how we can protect it

By Zoe Tabary

LONDON, May 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From the shopping habits of friends to relatives' sexual orientation, our personal data can shed light on a far wider network, digital rights experts say.

That has implications for how we, businesses and governments use individual information, said Martin Tisne, managing director of philanthropic organisation Luminate, which works on data and digital rights issues.

As authorities roll out surveillance tools to track the coronavirus pandemic after lockdown curbs are lifted, the Thomson Reuters Foundation asked Tisne who owns our data, what it's worth and how we can protect it.

Q: Do we really own our data?

A: The question of pure private ownership of data is in the water, because it's attractive politically, and it's about control and power. But I think it's flawed.

When it comes to data, we are more impacted by other people's data than we are by our own

An example of that is the use of automated decision-making systems in the criminal justice system in the United States, and the ways in which especially bail-setting and sentencing algorithms are biased towards certain defendants.

So if I were a 27-year-old, black, African-American male to be arrested in Florida, I could try to own data related to me all I wanted (but) I would still be impacted by people I'm grouped with ... and could be denied bail because I'm deemed likely to recidivate.

What's fascinating about data and digital rights is that it cuts across everything else. It's important for every single problem that we face as a society today.

Q: What do you think of the idea of people being paid for their data?

A: We're creating a data divide. People being paid for their data leads to the question, what happens to people whose data is less valuable? Are we again creating a two-tier society where one of the biggest problems the world faces is inequality? 

Where people who have data that is judged to be more valuable, will not only be making more money potentially, but will have more control over the overall infrastructure that we're creating to commoditise data?

That's why we need to have safeguards that look both at individual rights, which are necessary but not sufficient, but also at collective data rights.   

Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the way our data is used?

A: What we're seeing with the current COVID-19 epidemic is the degree to which our societies don't plan well for collective risk – we plan for individual risk and individual benefits.

And so as we're trying to deal with systemic risk, we may be planting the seeds for another type of crisis. Right now everyone is rightly interested in the notion of surveillance capitalism.

Take a Chinese-style surveillance system – it's not just about a CCTV surveillance which is looking at you within a shop or a street, it has the ability to follow you from a shop through a public park through another shop and then as you get into your home, and the implications of that are very far-reaching.

The moment that you have a leader who is less scrupulous... you can just flip the switch, and try to use that data in ways that may not be acceptable to society.

We're making societal trade-offs, political decisions in times of crises that have nothing to do with the crisis itself, that may come to haunt us in the future.

Q: So how do we go about protecting our data?

A: Data trusts right now are a fascinating concept. It's where you create a fiduciary responsibility for the rights that you have over your data, you're delegating that decision-making to a third party.

The main way that a data trust would impact decisions we take on a day-to-day basis is that we wouldn't need to make dozens of uninformed decisions that we're tacitly making by clicking 'I'm okay with cookies', with these crazy terms and conditions from my insurance company or my app that no one's ever going to read. You would be freed from the burden of these micro decisions.

I hope data trusts could help minorities and groups who are suffering as a result of how data about them is used. One of the most pernicious issues when it comes to data rights in developing countries for example is the impact of data on people for whom there is very little data available.

But I think there are areas we need to work on. First, creating a professional cadre of data trustees. Second, government legislation and an understanding of how the rights could be delegated to the data trustee. And third, technological gaps. What may be missing when it comes to engineering and data science in order to make data trusts work?

This interview was shortened and edited for clarity.

Related stories:

Britons risk having data 'sold to highest bidder' after Brexit, whistleblower warns

Latest on coronavirus surveillance: How governments are monitoring citizens

Data of the dead: Virtual immortality exposes holes in privacy laws