Technology has rapidly advanced in the past decade, an impossible feat without the use of large quantities of data. But businesses and consumers alike are now talking about who owns this data — and what it’s worth.
Companies collect your data daily when you use your smartphone, jump on a hotspot, connect to your car’s Bluetooth, operate your smart TV and more. Each new purchase becomes part of the Internet of Things, creating more opportunities to upload your life to the digital world. But who owns this mass of data?
Ownership comes down to who created the data and how, but these definitions have become crisscrossed. Gone are the days where printed articles offered credit to contributing authors.
In the digital age, data is a shapeshifting concept. Issues surrounding the collection, analysis and sales of data have left many people scratching their heads when conflicts and controversies arise.
The Facebook Scandal
One recent data controversy that has made headlines worldwide is Facebook’s dealings with a suspicious campaign consultancy firm. The social media site — which has more than 2.7 billion people using one or more of its products, including Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram — allegedly sold data that advertisers used to create a series of influential political ads.
A company called Cambridge Analytica, in conjunction with psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan, used a survey by Cambridge University to generate more than 50 million raw profiles of data. Only 270,000 users had consented to have their data collected, though all believed it was for academic use. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, claims the incident was not a data breach. But many argue Facebook violated privacy agreements.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral recently experienced a devastating fire that destroyed the landmark’s infamous spire. Many have called for the building’s restoration, including French President Emmanuel Macron. But is the project possible? With the use of 3D scanning, a technique that collects highly accurate data, it could be.
Andrew Tallon, a late art professor from Vassar College, was the first and last person to scan Notre Dame Cathedral digitally. Through the use of specialized lasers, he collected a billion data points of the building to within five millimeters of accuracy. These measurements are the only record of the cathedral from before its partial destruction and could prove invaluable to construction workers. But who owns this data — Notre Dame, Vassar or Tallon’s estate?
LinkedIn v. hiQ
Is it legal for a business to collect information posted on a publicly viewable website? One court case between LinkedIn and hiQ Labs — a company that scours data on LinkedIn to predict how likely employees are to quit their jobs — may determine the answer. The dispute began when LinkedIn claimed the company, which had been collecting data since 2012, was in violation of federal anti-hacking law.
In June, hiQ filed suit against LinkedIn claiming the networking site was attempting to stifle competition. LinkedIn claims they have a right to control private property — user data. Without the use of LinkedIn’s data, hiQ may have to close its doors permanently. This dispute, once solved, is sure to influence the ongoing conversation of data ownership.
Digital Inheritance Laws
Who owns your data after you die? All the pictures you’ve taken, poems you’ve posted and videos you’ve shared — whom does it belong to when you’re no longer around? The reality is there are no rules. Technology has advanced faster than the legal guidelines governing it. In the meantime, complications are bound to arise.
Two parents in London who lost their 14-year-old daughter to suicide say they have tried to access her phone and Instagram account to find clues about her death, but they’ve been unable to obtain any data. Ian Russell, the girl’s father, believes the data on his daughter’s phone should become the parents’ property. But Britain has no laws on digital inheritance — data stored in smartphones, on social media accounts, etc. — making the situation a complicated one.
The cloud is a revolutionary phenomenon that has made it easy for consumers and businesses alike to create, share and store data including photos, videos, documents, spreadsheets, e-books and so much more. But when you upload data to the cloud, who owns it — you or the virtual caretaker?
Some say the company that provides the cloud storage owns data users entrust them with. But others argue the cloud is merely a transportation conduit, watching over the data until the originator returns to collect it. This ambiguity has left many businesses hesitant to jump to cloud-based computing. There is no international or federal standard for who owns data. Instead, ownership depends on individual contracts which vary from provider to provider.
The Challenges of Data Ownership in 2019
The discussion around data ownership is a tricky one. When we use digital devices, we share data as we interact. But no one knows for sure who owns this data. Is it the person who created the data, like a photo or video? Or is it the website where the user chose to share or store the content?
The idea of ownership goes a step further and asks the question: Does the owner of the data have a requirement to protect it? And if so, what does that protection entail?
These questions are all difficult to answer, and there’s no overnight solution. But as controversies similar to the ones above continue to arise, the rules surrounding the world of data will begin to take shape.