The public is finally waking up to the importance of data. Sure, most of us still scroll to the bottom and click 'Accept' on iTunes' Terms and Conditions, but rising incidents of identity theft and the obscene ways companies are profiting on personal data has started to elevate the importance of the conversation.
A recent study by Open Xchange reported that 81% of voters in the U.S. want politicians to enact measures protecting their data privacy. Interestingly, the same study showed that only 31% of the population viewed themselves as primarily responsible for the security of their own data. In other words, we will continue using Facebook even if we know it is harvesting our data, but we want them to stop.
This paradox between wanting privacy but personally doing very little to get it has been a primary reason why governments have been slow to pass meaningful regulations, asserts Julian Ranger, the founder of a U.K.-based personal data platform called digi.me.
"To keep all of your data out of the hands of the corporations and governments that want it is very challenging," says Ranger. "Many of us who are quite digitally connected would have to make some serious lifestyle changes. No more Facebook; no more Gmail; no more iPhone; it is very hard to go 'off the grid', so to speak."
How hard is it exactly? You may remember last June Mark Zuckerberg made headlines when he posted a picture of himself on Instagram that showed his laptop in the background. He had tape placed over the camera and over the microphone, something you would do if you were concerned about privacy and concerned about how fragile it can be when you live in a digitally connected world. Zuckerberg would know, and if he is worried, maybe we all should be.
Over the last 20 years, we have succeeded in connecting three billion people to the internet. Now we have to figure out how to make sure that people's 'digital lives' are their own and that they have control over who has access to their data.
The challenge of putting data back in the hands of the people who it belongs to is a legislative one, but it is also a technological one. The first and most obvious place to start is to empower people with the technology to have all of their data in one place - social media accounts, medical records, education records, government documents, and so on.
Consider the problem of medical records. If you want to see your own medical records or provide them to someone else, you first have to acquire them. They are likely in file cabinets at one or more doctor's offices, hospitals, or clinics. And HIPAA does not require those institutions to hold records in perpetuity. So an MRI taken 10 years ago is probably gone. Even worse, it can cost money to receive copies of those records, even though they contain vital information about your health.
That is why some experts are discussing how to make data more personal. What would the technology look like that makes data proprietary to its rightful owner and allows the individual to release it to interested institutions on their own terms? Ranger, who is a vocal critic of what he calls 'surveillance capitalism', believes a platform for capturing, organizing, and disseminating data in a secure and authenticated way is the first step.
This, of course, is a monumental task. But it is being tackled by some of the brightest minds all over the world. One group, which calls itself the Hub of All Things (or HAT) has made a web browser that locally stores your data and allows you to use email, social media, and the web without companies harvesting your information.
Ranger's digi.me has developed software that locally stores all of the data from your social media accounts and is working to expand to other none-internet related services.
Whatever the technology, its success is dependent on the public buying into the value proposition. Given our increasingly lengthy digital footprints and our distressing lack of control over who can see it, that shift may happen sooner than later.