An implicit data bill of rights

Photo by Vkx462

I've been lucky enough to spend some time with Ken Zolot this week, who's heavily involved with startups both through MIT and the Kaufmann foundation. He threw some fantastic papers in my direction, and one of the most interesting finds was a proposal by Alex Pentland on data privacy, what he calls a New Deal on Data. I've been wrestling with how to use implicit data on people's behavior in an ethical and honest way and Pentland's definition is really helpful.

He draws on English Common Law principles of possession, use and disposal, and applies them to data about ourselves, to match our intuitive feelings of ownership of information about ourselves.

1. You have a right to possess your data. Companies should adopt the role of a Swiss bank account for
your data. You open an account (anonymously, if possible), and you can remove your data whenever you’d like.

2. You, the data owner, must have full control over the use of your data. If you’re not happy with
the way a company uses your data, you can remove it. All of it. Everything must be opt-in, and not only clearly explained in plain language, but with regular reminders that you have the option to opt out.

3. You have a right to dispose or distribute your data. If you want to destroy it or remove it and redeploy it elsewhere, it is your call.

In practice these make some technical demands for the ability to export and delete information that few services provide. Try saving out your friend graph from Facebook without violating their terms-of-service!

This makes it a tough sell for corporations built around hoarding users' information as a proprietary asset. In the long-term though, the benefits of users sharing information widely will benefit services that don't lock in their users. You can already see that with Twitter's API; their lack of restrictions has led to applications that weren't even imagined before the data became available.

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