What (digital) footprints are made of

Personal data is commodified, privacy is to be paid for: this is the virtual world we live in. It's a messy, evolving, and complex landscape, where so much is still up for grabs and what us valued remains to be made clear.

Footprints used to be visible. When the world became digital, footprints transformed too: no longer tangible tracks in the sand but implicit, unavoidable, and indelible computational points in a virtual universe. Over the past few years, a new market of personal data services has emerged, where data is the proverbial footprint and products and services aim to make it visible, controllable, and marketable. It’s a world of privacy and value, concealment and control, where freedom, personal agency and basic human rights are at stake.

The ideology of data

Every personal data service starts with an ideology. Although most talk the same talk, about ‘empowering users’ and ‘giving control back to the people’, beneath the surface there is often a fundamental belief about what the value of data is and, as a result, what the business model should look like. Some organisations, like Personal, give people a platform to store their data. The onus on how that data is used is entirely up to the user; the importance here is privacy and, at a fixed price per month, in paying for the opportunity to have it.

Other organisations assume that data should be shared and sold, like Meeco who position themselves as facilitators in the ‘MeEconomy’, or Datacoup, who act as true brokers of the personal data storage world. In their model data is priced depending on fluctuations in the market; users choose to sell their data at any moment to datacoup (for “real, cold hard cash”), who then resell it to third parties at a competitive price. It’s capitalism at its most extreme.

Either as a piece of one’s self to be safely stored, or as an impersonal entity priced like oil, gold or gas in the commercial market, personal data is transformed by the virtual into something, however abstract it might appear, that has a financial value.

Commodification of the footprint

Here, the digital footprint is commodified, albeit in different ways. Either as a piece of one’s self to be safely stored, or as an impersonal entity priced like oil, gold or gas in the commercial market, personal data is transformed by the virtual into something, however abstract it might appear, that has a financial value.

What this means does not necessarily point to a dystopian world, but it does demand question and caution. If personal data is seen to be distinct from the ‘real’ self, will people pay less attention to who they share it with and sell it to? If data is a commodity, will monetary reward and self-censorship outweigh freedom of speech, creativity, and true anonymity? If to protect those values one needs to pay for the privilege, does the personal data economy speak only to those with money and knowledge, and marginalize the vulnerable or those not in the know?

Visibility vs. control

The personal data economy obsesses about control. But what control really is and how to give it to citizens is not always seen in the same way. Datacoup for instance claims to empower through enabling people to visualize all of their online data in one space, but users have no say in where it goes to next. Other models open an avenue for people to choose which third parties view their data and how those interactions take place. Conversely, bodies concerned solely with data storage see citizen control as involving the choice about whether to even commoditise the data in the first place.

Again this speaks to the underlying ideology embedded in these systems. Some brokerage models mention being rooted in Privacy by Design principles, but if they nudge users towards sharing personal data do they truly give control? If visibility and transparency of the data market is the predominant offer, is that enough? When personal data services give just storage but no guidance, does that equally leave users with limited choice? What’s the sweet spot? Education here is key. CitizenMe begins to address this, and clearly lays out people’s virtual activity through clarifying terms and conditions agreements and exposed identities; if more personal data services had similar educational aims would they only then fulfil promises of empowerment and build trust in the long-term?

Growing awareness, growing demands

The personal data landscape is one where so much is up for grabs, and so much is moving quickly. Regulations are still being established, with communities like the UK’s Digital Catapult Personal Data and Trust Network pushing for a common set of principles across professional bodies. Because of this, it’s also a landscape where it’s crucial to build in truly person-centred views. Now the consumers of these products and services are early adopters, tech-geeks and Silicon Valley businessmen, alongside the inevitable – but hopefully only occasional – criminal or two. As people become more aware of the implications of their online behaviour, and as technology innovation accelerates, the language, education provided, and service offer in the personal data market will have to adapt to a more diverse population and an ever rapidly changing digital world.

For any personal data store to be trusted, therefore, it must not only navigate regulatory frameworks but also people’s expectations, desires, and levels of knowledge, along with the underlying political and ethical ramifications that thread through every seemingly innocuous design.  

We’re continuously looking into the role of trust in technology, and actively interested in building on this conversation and finding partners in this area. As always, give us a shout by email or on Twitter if you want to join in.

Mindset reminders:

  • In the emerging personal data market, every single service rests on a particular ideological stance – whether purely capitalist or libertarian – about the value of personal data, what it’s worth, and what their role in this landscape should be.
  • Whichever way it’s seen, personal data is commodified, with the potential to either reinforce or instead reduce social inequalities and power hierarchies.
  • Consumer control is the centre of concern, but what this means can be interpreted in different ways; person-centred approaches become vital for the development of this rapidly evolving ecosystem. 

ImageDaniel Crooks, 'Pan No.8', 2010 (HD video)

Emilie Glazer