A Paradigm Shift in Personal Data – from possession to use

Ever since I started getting interested in this subject and started writing about it, I had in my pea-brained mind a vague vision of some technology-enabled future in which people could exercise greater, if not total, control over “their data”.

I felt very at home at IIW last week (23-5 October 2012), at which this issue came up again and again. Although a newcomer to this particular party, I don’t make any claim to particular “prior art” in this area – my interest was sparked nearly a decade ago about possible policy implications around data ownership, and less so about the technological feasibility of such an approach. The issue may not have been consistently on my radar in the intervening years but it was great to see last week how much the conversation has moved forward as well as the technologies.

We still tend to think of personal data as digital objects that are stored, moved around and have value added to them as they become passed through the value chain of the identity ecosystem from the single-celled organisms of data points about a particular person up to the top-table of juicy morsels served up (against due payment of course) by the data aggregators and digital advertisers.

This seems set to change if we think of this ecosystem as actually offering the possibility of a value network rather than a value chain. In a value chain, value is added as some product or asset is passed upwards. It is only one-way: in the personal data space, today you are the lunch and at the bottom of that food chain. In a value network, every participant wins, including us mere mortals. So how would this work? Firstly, a paradigm shift.

I have argued for many years that the idea of an “electronic identity card” is a skeumorphism of the original identity card’s functions: why a “card” rather than an identity management system? The “card” is familiar and superficially conveyed its intent but in doing so, it perpetuated a paradigm based on an outdated mode of operation, that the value of the data on the card derives from actually possessing the card.

What emerged last week was a growing sense that the idea of “personal data” itself is skeumorphic: why do we think of personal “data” being passed around when its value is not in its possession but in its use? Should we instead think in terms of personal information services?


“You want to know my date of birth? Get lost, it’s none of your business (and, no, hooking me with the offer of a free birthday card or gift ain’t going to work)”.


“Want to know if I’m over 21 and entitled to buy alcohol? Over 50 and entitled to join AARP? I’ll give you a yes/no answer”

because that is all you really need to know for that particular transaction. The value is in the relationship of the question to the answer, not in the raw data itself.

Unless, that is, you are in the business of harvesting personal data in order to make a magnitude of profit more than would be the case if you really, really did actually want to offer the “data subject” some useful service> Think how things might change if possession of personal data were considered a liability rather than an asset and required statutory reporting – how that would change business practices overnight…

I sense that the tide is turning. For years, digital advertisers have been riding a gravy train of revenue derived from customers where the intent of divulging our personal data rarely matched the use that followed, or where such intent or use was even requested or measured. They have an opportunity to engage constructively and recognise that they have a place at the table of a vastly superior identity value network but are no longer welcome at the top of a weakening identity value chain.

In one of the last sessions at IIW, we discussed a general problem of technology folks being able to communicate often complex concepts to non-specialist audiences and I talked about the value of metaphor and how this can be used powerfully when working with diverse stakeholder types.

Paradigms, by their nature, tend not to morph fluidly from one to another. There is an abrupt shift, sometimes seismic. In this domain, the ideological, technological, economic, and other plates are moving and faults are detectable to identity seismologists. When the shift comes, you had better be on solid ground.

But that’s a metaphor about paradigms and paradigm shift. What would be an appropriate metaphor to describe the particular paradigm shift I discuss here? From the current mid set of “owning”, “possessing”, and “managing” personal data; to one where the value is the use, the transaction, the very context specific and time-sensitive relationship between the owner of some aspect of personal identity expressed as data; and the person, agency, service, etc. that uses it?

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