Can you own your data?

MadHATTERS 100th issue editorial

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This being the MadHATTERS 100th issue, we thought it would be apt to address the question most asked of those who work in personal data. Can you own your data?

You cannot believe just how many people have asked us this question of “can you truly truly own your data” and data ownership challenges…. at some point we are thinking we should record our responses into some device that can just play back whenever someone asks. So for our 100th issue, we’re recording it into MadHATTERS.

Can you own your data?
Legally? No.

Yeah, you can’t own data. Not just your data. Any data. Full stop. It’s bitstrings of 1s and 0s. It’s like water. Or air. It flows every where. It’s messy.

So you can’t own it because it’s messy.
Yes. You can’t own anything that has no boundaries. The air in your room gets out to another room. Water coming into your garden flows away.

I sense there is a BUT…?
You CAN own water rights. You CAN own bottled air (oxygen) and you CAN own a cup of water.

So you can own….. water, air, data?
No, that’s not what I said. You can own something that has clear boundaries and that give you rights to it. Or you can own a vessel that has clear boundaries that give you rights to what is in it.

So you can own something that your data is in?
Yes. It’s called a database. The EU and the US have laws that protect database ownership rights.

So you can legally own your data if you own your own database?
No. But you can legally own RIGHTS to the content of your database. Which, could be your data. That’s not owning data legally, that is owning more rights to your data than if your data was sitting in, say, the NHS or Google.

So why do you all at HAT say that you can own your data?
Well, “ownership” is not just a legal construct. It is also a social construct. We may not be able to legally own something, but we can perceive that we own it. If we have control over something, what we often call agency, we can feel we own it. Like phone messages. And emails. (You don’t really think you own it do you?) So we don’t think you should close the debate down just because you can’t own your data legally and consider that as an end of the conversation. We need to be much more mature in understanding ownership and to get into a conversation of how we can “meaningfully” own data, which to us, is owning as many rights to it as possible.

So … the more rights the greater the perception of “ownership”?
Yes. At the minimum – access or usage. Sone companies don’t even give that. GDPR requires companies to give you 8 rights but you are merely a data subject. At the maximum – you should have full rights to use, exclude others from using, transfer the rights, rights to recombine, reuse and transform the data. 5 more rights. That’s what the HAT Microserver give to HAT owners, through their ownership of their own database.

Why are rights and boundaries important?
Well, without rights, you can’t trade or exchange anything legally and economics depend on movement of things and rights so that means if you want to be able to exchange data properly, you need proper rights attributed to them and proper boundaries surrounding it.

I’m a little less confused. But it would be nice to know how you can give individuals more rights to our data.
Might want to check out Irene Ng’s
HAT Data Ownership model academic paper if you want the full gory details.

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