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In the Big Data Era, it’s time for consumers to take control

Every day consumers are giving away their personal data to companies without realizing or understanding what it all really means.

Whenever we use apps on our phones, or watch shows through a streaming media service, or simply browse the world wide web, we are supplying important information about ourselves and our habits to companies that use it to make more money.

Personal data can be as innocuous as a name, but it can also be sensitive information like a health condition. Most of the times though, the personal data collected by companies is consumers’ spending habits such as the books they buy, the movies they watch, or the music they listen to. This information is invaluable for companies because it helps them figure out patterns and preferences that, in turn, they can use to increase sales and make more money.

More often than not, consumers give away this information for free, without knowing that they are doing so, and without knowing for what purpose that information is going to be used. And we are all culprits (or victims?) — including myself — of agreeing with terms and conditions of data usage, that we never read, by just ticking a box or clicking a button. The truth is, there is no real consent, understanding, control, or gain for consumers when allowing to share their personal data.

That needs to change!

In part, change is needed in Congress to enact robust legislation that prevents and compensates consumers in cases of scandals like the Cambridge Analytica[1] or the more recent Facebook data breach[2]. As Sean Davis Jr., from the National Consumers League, puts it, “companies like Facebook, Equifax, and countless other businesses profit by collecting consumers’ data on a massive scale. The collection and use of such huge amounts of personal data creates an inescapable risk for consumers that the data will fall into the wrong hands. That is why comprehensive data security legislation is so urgently needed”[3].

But there is another way for consumers to start taking control — by taking ownership.

Consumers can join forces, get together and build their own personal data management system. The idea is simple: through a consumer-owned cooperative company, consumers collect and store their personal data, deciding in what way and for what purpose it can be used.

Consumers can then decide what data can be collected (buying habits, health information, political preferences, social data, financial data, etc.). They decide what that data can be used for (research, marketing, propaganda, etc.), and — even better — consumers can receive the economic benefits of selling that data! In fact, through a cooperative business structure, consumers can own and democratically manage what is theirs to start with, sharing the economic benefits of such activity.

Does this seem unrealistic?

There are already some successful experiences. For example, in Switzerland, the cooperative “Midata”[4] is formed by consumers who collect and manage their personal health data for medical research purposes.

Because personal data is so valuable for companies, consumers could really benefit from controlling access to it through a centralized, secure, and easily accessible platform. For companies, this would be beneficial too, as it would reduce the risk and cost of collection or misuse, and it would serve as a centralized source of access. It’s a win-win proposition.

So, what’s the catch?

The challenge is to find an initial group of consumers that take the project forward, to grow membership and the amount of data. Even though a relatively small number of participants can work for certain types of specific data, the ideal is to have a large and diverse pool of members that can be representative of a wider audience, to captivate the interest of companies. But, as the Chinese proverb says, even the longest journey must start with the first step.

In the era of Big Data, personal data is a very valuable asset. It’s time for consumers to take control and start benefiting from what is rightfully theirs.

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[1] A good explanation of what happened can be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/technology/facebook-cambridge-analytica-explained.html

[2] An account of the facts can be found here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/09/28/facebook-says-million-accounts-affected-by-hackers/?utm_term=.6acf9cd3a54a

[3] https://www.nclnet.org/congress_action_data_security

[4] www.midata.coop