Currency-As-A-Model for Reframing The Debate on Data Privacy

January 21, 2021

Peter Sondergaard, Senior Vice President of Gartner Research, said, “Information is the oil of the 21st century, and analytics is the combustion engine.” Data can be considered a modernized weapon, with scientists gathering it in excess to tell a story in a tractable form.

Thanks to plentiful data access, companies can think rigorously, analytically, and systematically about business problems to develop brilliant solutions leveraged from this information.

However, your average Joe, who provided this data may not be aware that his private information is what is being traded for “free” services like Facebook and Google.

As consumers, we willingly surrender our data without giving much thought to reading user agreements before clicking “I Agree.” This is largely due to the prevalent ignorance today concerning the transactional nature of data in the modern world.

Given that our data is our de-facto payment for many services, one must wonder if mankind would benefit by treating it as a form of currency.

Israel is currently leading the global vaccine race having already successfully vaccinated over 12% of its population, far ahead of most other countries.

The country is prosperously tackling COVID-19 by committing to sharing data with Pfizer, hence why they received so many extra doses of the vaccine to jab everyone by mid-March.

The data requested by Pfizer related to the consequences of the inoculations, such as efficacy, side effects, and how long it takes to develop antibodies.

This arrangement supports R&D and treatments for coronavirus vaccines, and most people are in favor because it will benefit their health and safety against the virus. People’s data paid for these life-saving vaccines, proving that your information can pay for anything without your direct control.

On the other hand, The Cambridge Analytica Scandal exposed how digital consultants for Donald Trump’s campaign misused millions of Facebook users’ data.

The data firm obtained voter profiles from Facebook to adversely affect the 2016 US elections. This was easy for them to do because Facebook is a goldmine of all our information that anyone can take advantage of for their own agenda.

Even though money could not outright buy an election, our data can, making this “digital currency” more valuable than cash. Just like money, as seen above, data can be used for good, and bad causes, and is in of itself neither good nor bad.

Even though data is making transactions on people’s behalf every day, it is not treated as a currency by consumers, nor by companies overtly - Imagine if when you signed up for Facebook, you clearly checked boxes for what data you wanted to share, and were presented with the content or services you would get access to in return.

Many consumers would likely make drastically different choices about transacting their data, the same way they do with spending money. Most of us still perceive these platforms as “free to use” because we have not monetized the data that we provide.

Shifting the debate regarding data to one that recognizes its transactional nature, might be the first step in creating consumer awareness, and corporate responsibility.

If more people started thinking about their data’s actual value in a way similar to currency, they might demand to only sell their analytics to the most trusted brands to prevent privacy and ethical issues. Or, demand more transparency and customizability from tech companies with regard to privacy standards and policies.

Our insights can currently be sold to any organization with deep pockets just because we felt like posting a few memes online. According to Model N, individuals create more than 70% of the digital universe, but enterprises are responsible for storing, managing, and profiting from 80% of it.

Yet, despite this astounding figure, consumers, time and again are surprised by how their data is being used, or even by films stating what should be the obvious, such as “the social dilemma” which has recently added fuel to the fire of this debate.

It's important to note that regulating data as a currency may not be appropriate, but changing the public debate to one that speaks of data as something dynamic, transactional, and valuable, is already half of the battle.

Regulation, on the other hand, may cause more harm than good, bringing to fruition other forms of threats to our privacy such as a data tax on companies, or unrealistic standards that would both curb innovation and limit growth, while simultaneously be unenforceable in practice, just as GDPR was.

On the other hand, an educated public, who know and understand the fundamental value of their data could be the ones to force tech companies to be held up to a new bar in terms of personal information security and transparency on the matter.

At the same time, reframing the debate as one that acknowledges the transactional nature of data may bring tech companies to speak more transparently on what data they are receiving in return for what services, thus creating a more honest and productive conversation about the information we share online.

Today, other than specific cases (such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal) social media platforms aren’t doing anything wrong by taking our data.

That’s their business model.

The issue is on our end. We aren’t acting like intelligent consumers, we aren’t demanding the data-privacy features we want, and most of us, are still ten years behind in the process of accepting this.

If you don’t believe me, just watch Mark Zuckerberg answering questions in congress. He spent most of his time just trying to explain how Facebook's business model works.

Clearly, the government is not equipped to regulate this issue quite yet, But maybe the right approach by an educated public can help the industry self regulate, by allowing consumers to crystallize what exactly they want from social media.

The key to that, as with everything, is acceptance - accepting that services like Facebook were never free. And that now it's just a game of negotiating the terms, something that can’t be done without first acknowledging there is a transaction taking place.

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