The processing of various forms of personal data has always been part of human interaction and the smooth running of our underlying systems. Yet in the last twenty years or so, the scope of what could be considered personal data became so extensive and its use so far-reaching that it is rapidly becoming the sustenance fuelling economic growth and innovation.
Data streams vs. Data sets: the advent of digital twins
What is now considered as personal data goes way beyond your full name, social security number or bank credentials. With the advent of IoT and the variety of connected devices, such as smart home or wearable sensors, each of us effectively has a digital twin that represents our life in detail. This dematerialised version of ourselves generates a continuous flow of data describing the what, the where and the how of our being.
Rethinking personal data
Digital twins learn and update themselves continuously and represent their real counterparts in real-time. They are also more honest and straightforward than our actual selves since people often expose underlying behavioural patterns unwillingly and unconsciously. Personal data has never been as personalised as it currently is. In fact, our digital twins are so precise that some algorithms are capable of predicting our future behaviour better than we do it ourselves.
The value of personal data
Indeed, this is a crucial aspect of real-time data streams — they hold enormous potential for a better-informed future. Take real-time driving data, for instance. Not only it could aid in addressing traffic issues and prevent road accidents, but also enable autonomous driving, minimising human error.
Of course, this capacity holds a huge value for businesses as well. Our digital twins can help businesses make informed decisions about which products should they offer to each of us individually at the right time and place, maximising their revenues. In addition, businesses can adopt new commercial strategies, such as creating time-based or use-based payment schemes, thus involving different customer groups that would otherwise be unable to use the service.
The Data Economy: there is no such thing as a free service
However, the enormous value of personal data generated by our digital twins has only become evident to the average user through a series of data breach scandals that broke out in the past few years. We now know that social networks, for instance, sell their users’ data to third parties and reap enormous economic benefits.
Personal Data is a counterpayment for services
Whereas individual data rights were previously mainly reserved to a simple ‘I agree’ to ambiguous Terms and Conditions, we are starting to witness more and more legal and government bodies trying to destabilise the monopoly big tech firms hold over data.
A recent ruling by the Italian State Council has found Facebook guilty of providing misleading information to its users. The platform’s Privacy Agreement states that its service is free and will remain so forever. The Court has, however, ruled that personal data is, in fact, a counterpayment for the services offered by Facebook. As such, the relationship between Facebook and its users is a commercial transaction, regulated by Consumers’ laws.
Towards a dynamic Data Economy
When seen in the context of regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the US, this ruling is a sign of a rapidly growing urgency to regulate how the industry manages consumer data. There is a steady trend of moving away from the concept of data privacy alone, which continues to perceive consumers as passive recipients of service, towards a dynamic data economy, which involves consumers as active actors who can exchange their data as a form of currency for services.
Reconsidering Data Privacy versus Data Ownership
The concept of Data Privacy dates to the pre-Internet era, where personal data were static data sets. The objective of regulators was to protect these data sets from access by unauthorised third parties — mostly by ensuring that repositories of static data were not vulnerable to external attacks. However, given the radical shift in what we currently account for as personal data, it is crucial to revise this term.
Rather than just talking about Data Privacy, we should be thinking about Data Ownership, which provides the consumers with the right to directly control the visibility over their data by any individual third party as well as to revoke it anytime.
The tools to exercise Data Ownership
However, giving rights to individuals is only meaningful if they’re also given the tools to exercise those rights. How can a single individual enter the data market and exercise data ownership over one’s digital twin?
Decentralised Data Ownership control: a Copernican Revolution
With the widespread adoption of connected devices generating continuous flows of data, our focus must shift from the protection of data at the point of its collection (e.g., the database containing the data sets) to the protection of data at the point of its generation (e.g., the device generating the data stream), handing the control to us consumers.
What we need is a paradigm shift — a Copernican Revolution of sorts — which moves away from the current centralised approach towards a distributed data economy, in which individuals assume control from the outset.
Finding a solution — EcoSteer Data Ownership Platform
An initiative, which currently seeks to lay the technical foundations of a new, decentralised, and distributed data economy, is the IoT and Blockchain software start-up EcoSteer. Based on end-to-end encryption and Smart Contracts, its patented Data Ownership Platform allows to decentralise data access control and give it back to the rightful data owners.
As the only software currently capable of automating data processing for granting and withdrawing the consent to access personal, named data streams, EcoSteer Data Ownership Platform can enable the creation of the ‘personal data-sharing intermediaries’ envisaged in the EU Data Governance Act. These data-sharing intermediaries are tools designed to help individuals exercise their rights under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) through neutral means, by connecting different actors yet always operating in the best interest of Data Owners.
A Vision for the Future
Experts predict that there will be approximately 50 billion connected IoT devices by the end of 2030 and this figure is set for an exponential growth. What this means is that our digital twins will become even more precise, more complete and, most importantly, more valuable. It is thus crucial to move away from centralised data control concepts that marginalise individuals and take a step forward towards a decentralised, distributed data economy that recognises and establishes the notion of data ownership.