You Are Your Data

in Slate: “We are becoming data. Every day, our smartphones, browsers, cars, and even refrigerators generate information about our habits. When we click “I agree” on terms of service, we opt in to systems in which we are known only by our data. So we need to be able to understand ourselves as data, too.
To understand what that might mean for the average person in the future, we should look to the Quantified Self community, which is at the frontier of understanding what our role as individuals in a data-driven society might look like. Quantified Self began as a Meetup community sharing personal stories of self-tracking techniques, and is now a catchall adjective to describe the emerging set of apps and sensors available to consumers to facilitate self-tracking, such as the Fitbit or Nike Fuelband. Some of the self-tracking practices of this group come across as extreme (experimenting with the correlation between butter consumption and brain function). But what is a niche interest today could be widely marketed tomorrow—and accordingly, their frustrations may soon be yours…

Instead, I propose that we should have a “right to use” our personal data: I should be able to access and make use of data that refers to me. At best, a right to use would reconcile both my personal interest in the small-scale insights and the firms’ large-scale interests in big data insights from the larger population. These interests are not in conflict with each other.
Of course, to translate this concept into practice, we need to work out matters of both technology and policy.
What data are we asking for? Are we asking for data that individuals have opted into creating, like self-tracking fitness applications? Should we broaden that definition to describe any data that refers to our person, such as behavioral data collected by cookies and gathered by third-party data brokers? These definitions will be hard to pin down.
Also, what kind of data? Just that which we’ve actively opted in to creating, or does it expand to the more hidden, passive, transactional data? Will firms exercise control over the line between where “raw” data becomes processed and therefore proprietary? If we can’t begin to define the data representation of a “step” in an activity tracker, how will we standardize access to that information?
Access to personal data also suffers from a chicken-and-egg problem right now. We don’t see greater consumer demand for this because we don’t yet have robust enough tools to make use of disparate sets of data as individuals, and yet such tools are not gaining traction without proven demand.”