Why Data Empowerment Matters

SAM YOON of Deloitte advocates a different approach to data protection.

With the ascension of technology, privacy policy makers are scrambling to balance the utility of such technologies with individual data rights. Appropriate policies should focus on empowering users with their data, rather than punitive measures to limit data usage. Social media has bought the world closer, yet in 2018, 17 million Facebook users had their personal data harvested without consent for political advertising. In mid-2017, a breach in one of the largest credit bureaus in the world exposed the sensitive financial data of 150 million customers. Of course, public institutions are also using personal data to better protect their citizens, but Edward Snowden has taught us to question the boundaries between proactive intelligence versus mass surveillance. And similarly, national crises such as the Christchurch mosque attack or COVID-19 allow us to question where the public good lies in data harvesting. Whether it’s data breaches, political manipulation, or mass surveillance, we need effective policies to protect our wellbeing and security but we also need policies that protect the notion of being a “free” person in a democratic society.

One way to view these problems is through the lens of inequality – where one side of the system is more dominant than the other. As with all inequalities, there are two ways to correct the imbalance. On one hand, you can try reduce the power of data users. Examples of such solutions include giving more teeth to privacy agencies, increasing penalties for negligent data practices, or opposing the use of personal data for public reasons for the fear of misuse. The other type of solution (one that seems to be more rare) is to increase the power of individuals. Recent European regulatory developments point in this direction with multiple clauses bolstering the power of individuals.

From a implementation point of view, it’s easier to increase fines and controls in the short term. However, in the long term, I argue that empowering individuals is a more efficient way of dealing with the problem. Imposing costs for data users creates a dead weight loss in the system. Data is not a finite resource, so as long as individuals are appropriately compensated for their data, it benefits everyone if companies use that data as much as possible. For example, think of a song writer who holds the copyright to a certain tune – as long as the song writer is fairly compensated and their song is used within agreed boundaries, no one loses from that song being used an infinite number of times. Contrast this with a finite resource like fossil fuels – even with appropriate compensation, you don’t want companies to use up all the fossil fuels in the world. As policy makers look to balance data inequality, they should look to introduce more interventions that empower individuals through education about data use and reduce barriers so they can control the way their data is used.