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Business Commentary We must consider what can happen if our personal data become a private asset

Kean Birch is an associate professor at York University

The promises attached to smart cities, smart networks and new industrial revolutions are premised on the transformation of our personal data into private assets. Economists and business commentators argue that this transformation is essential for the future success of countries like Canada.

But why, you might ask? Well, personal data are framed as the “oil wells” of the future, promising innovation and societal well-being for Canadians if only we are allowed to exploit it.

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But there’s a funny thing about promises: They generally don’t come true – think of all the jet-packs and flying cars we’ve been promised over the years. Instead, promises do something else. They create expectations about the future, and expectations – especially those relating to techno-scientific development – lead to changes in the present. By making promises, we change regulations and institutions today, largely in ways that will fit with those promises.

The promise for Canada is that personal data can be an asset that business and government can and should exploit, largely because the value of such data only increases as more data are collected and used. Although this is presented as an opportunity Canada simply cannot turn down, it’s worth considering the implications of turning our personal data into a private asset.

First, it’s important to understand what an asset is. According to International Accounting Standards, an “asset is a resource controlled by the entity as a result of past events and from which future economic benefits are expected to flow to the entity.” Assets are the constructs of property rights – who can claim their earnings, and capitalization practices – the present value of those future earnings. If personal data are assets then they are someone’s property and they will generate earnings someone can claim and capitalize. But this means that to benefit from personal data, we have to turn it into property and ensure that any future earnings are not threatened by future changes even if those changes have a democratic mandate.

Second, if personal data are property, who do they belong to? It might make sense to say that personal data belong to individuals since we produce the data about the places we visit, the web searches we make, our viewing habits, our likes or dislikes, and so on. Despite all our work, though, our personal data don’t belong to us; they belong to those who collect the information – mostly with our consent. Even though we may give consent, we get little choice about whether we wish to hand over our personal data or not, since there are few choices between monopolistic data collectors such as Facebook or Google.

Third, if personal information is not our property, then we have little control over how it’s used aside from the regulations that our government enacts in our interests. If we give up that political control, then we have no economic control to say how our personal data should be used, or who should be able exploit it. And this matters because our personal data are used in ways that are socially oppressive through algorithms that reinforce racism and sexism. It also matters that our personal data are used as a resource that can be exploited if we get no say in who benefits. Even though the value of personal data results from its collective nature – representing populations, trends and such – we do not receive a collective benefit; some will end up benefiting far more than others.

Fourth, the lack of control leaves us open to a range of rent-seeking strategies – whether that is monopoly control over markets, micro-transactions, or price discrimination. All these forms of rentiership – by which I mean the extraction of earnings through the ownership and control over an asset rather than the creation of something new and useful – are on the rise and can be traced back to the increasing manipulation of personal data.

At its base, the problem of treating personal data as an asset is that the interests of asset owners end up trumping all other people’s interests; not just now but well into the future as they appropriate the future earnings they’ve been promised and on which they’ve based their financial decisions. It is, then, important to think of other ways we might understand personal data. One example would be to treat it as a public resource that we all own, much like our forests, wildlife and biodiversity. Doing so would provide us with greater control over who gets to use it, how it gets used, and what that means for our society as well as economy.

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