This article is part of Privacy in the Pandemic, a new series from Future Tense.
As countries play catch-up to ensure the safety of their citizens—with 2.5 billion people now in lockdown—policymakers are holding up data on the spread and proliferation of the virus as a linchpin of the response.
Telecommunications companies offer data on citizens’ movements to governments and promote unproven technologies that promise to “contact trace” the virus’s spread. Technology platforms like Facebook and Palantir are reportedly in talks to share your location data with the U.S. government and actively working with the National Health Service in the U.K. Google is being asked to screen for COVID-19—in what may become the largest capture of health data by a private company in history. Civil liberties groups are urging the government to protect people’s data and make sure that surveillance tools considered acceptable in an emergency do not become permanent fixtures.
Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum’s managing director, Murat Sönmez, is calling for something different: to treat personal data as a commodity that can be bought and sold via a blockchain-enabled marketplace. Sönmez writes, “We could see the value of data defined by a commodity exchange, not unlike what we have for oil markets, setting the value of data for specific use cases so that the owners get paid at the moment of consumption.” According to the Sönmez, this system “could speed up detection in the case of COVID-19.”
The idea here is, in part, that you could decide for yourself to put your data out there for others to utilize, relinquishing control of it in the process. These calls are not entirely new. As recently as February, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, Sen. Josh Hawley, and a Change.org campaign with hundreds of thousands of signatures called for data to be treated as a kind of “ownable” personal property. Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “You don’t own your data, & you should.”
It may sound like a way to empower consumers, particularly in a moment when we all feel even more helpless than usual. But tech companies would love nothing more than to have you own your data and treat it like property that you can sell. Last year, Amazon offered people $25 in Amazon gift cards (effectively paying themselves) in exchange for 3D body scans, while Facebook paid teens $20 a month to install a virtual private network giving Facebook total access to their phones. More recently, Facebook offered people $5 for their voice recordings.
These kinds of initiatives put individuals at risk. Not only is personal data effectively worthless on its own in the market, but drawing boundaries around personal data that can be “owned” by an individual may be an exercise in futility. In the context of a crisis like COVID-19, it would be disastrous.
Imagine if an #OwnYourData-style model were in place now. Imagine if it set the rules for contact tracing. Should someone have the right to sell your contact information to Facebook without your consent? Should they have the right to withhold it from the CDC or, on the contrary, sell it into Google’s “internal data free-for-all” with no protections? In the context of public health, data governance cannot be a question of individuals buying, selling, or withholding their data.
The underlying issue is not compensation or even privacy in the traditional sense—the issue is power. Personal data must be protected at law through inalienable rights, not pilfered as tradable property in the marketplace.
Calls to “own,” “sell,” or “monetize” your data are effectively advocating for a legal framework grounded in property rights. But such a framework would emphasize individual commercial interests above all else. While monetization may have a limited role to play, it is not a scalable or comprehensive solution, and it is definitely not a panacea. In particular, what becomes of consumer protection, personal dignity, and civil and human rights when data ownership is the basis of all exchange? Privacy becomes a luxury good, only to be enjoyed by those who can afford it. In the context of a pandemic, in which one estimate suggests that Americans have a 10 percent chance that a Facebook friend will die, we need collective ventures—like public health procedures—to ensure the country’s safety.
If we are given the choice to be paid for our data, we may be more likely to give up sensitive health data in the short term, relinquishing the potentially harmful uses of that data in the longer term. In either case, compensation would only act as a Band-Aid—a cheap fix that unfairly extinguishes our future rights and interests in that data. A property approach to data would accelerate the hypercommodification of daily life while consolidating data behind the iron gates of those who currently rule the digital economy.
While many may not realize it, we are increasingly subject to these powers that can manipulate our actions through behavioral advertising and psychometric microtargeting. They grow stronger when given more power in a crisis. These techniques threaten our commercial and civic lives in ways that will persist and cannot be cured by treating data as individually owned property—an approach that will neither change nor address the underlying power asymmetries that support these practices.
Without fundamental legal rights underpinning the relationship between those who control data and those subject to it, data ownership will erode the control of those who need it most. #OwnYourData is a poor substitute for real autonomy, the kind that cannot be bargained away.
There is a promising alternative to the property-based approach to data: a fundamental rights framework, as exemplified in Europe. This regime offers people rights over the use of information itself, thereby seeking to shift the balance of power toward the people. This allows citizens to assert basic rights against those that would otherwise wield unprecedented power against them. For example, data can only be used for expressed purposes, and individuals can access their data, object to its use, rectify inaccuracies, and seek redress for misuse.
Those basic rights have proven able, agile, and flexible when trying to hold parties that would misuse such information to account. It is the lack of enforcement that undermines the power of these rights, rather than the poverty of rights as a whole. We should look to stand behind and enforce those rights to engender meaningful change, rather than seek to create an entirely new framework.
Redressing the pandemic should not be at the cost of liberties, which is why responses must be grounded in fundamental rights. Proposals that hinge on individual ownership, whether from the WEF or policymakers, would entrench existing power structures. While these approaches may appear attractive now, we need to be robust to ensure that responses to emergencies do not become embedded. The costs are simply too great.