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World Economic Forum: The Control Shift is happening … now what?

Posted on: Wednesday 16th of May 2012

About a year ago, the World Economic Forum produced a report talking about personal data as ‘a new asset class’. Some said it is ‘the new oil’ energising and greasing the wheels of the information age. But personal data isn’t a traditional asset like oil in two critical respects.

First, when we collect, refine, process and use oil it has no feelings about that matter. But personal data – which is about persons – is different. Persons care about how their data is collected, refined and used and by whom. They want to have a say in the matter.

Second, the ‘asset’ word implies ownership: complete binary simplicity. If you own an asset it’s yours to do with as you like – and it’s not mine. I have no rights over it.  But with personal data it’s different. Traditional physical property-based notions of ownership are based on the assumption of exclusivity. If you own it, I can’t. But information can be shared. If I give you an idea, I don’t lose that idea. Instead, we both have it. And with personal data there’s a further twist: should the rights and benefits of the data accrue to the person who generated the data in the first place, or to the organisation that collected it?

WEF’s latest report Rethinking Personal Data – Strengthening Trust, which Ctrl-Shift contributed to and is published today, grapples with these conundrums. Its basic message to 21st century capitalism can be summed up like this: ‘this new asset class is indeed new. Personal data is a personal asset as well as a corporate asset. Person’s want to exercise control over their own assets and to enjoy the benefits of these assets. It’s simply not possible to treat this asset as you would a traditional asset such as oil. You have to accommodate the feelings and claims of the data generator, the individual. Organisations no longer have 100% control. A control shift is under way … er… what next?’ Or, as the report says, “how to create the rules and tools so that all stakeholders can capture the value from the data in a trusted way”.

These rules and tools need to encompass three very different types of data – volunteered, observed and inferred. They need to cover the spectrum from truly anonymous through pseudonymous to personally identifiable, and the multiple different shades of consent (from implied to explicit, active opt-in) and rights to benefit from data use. Within this, WEF recognizes the growing importance of VPI (Volunteered Personal Information) and of personal data stores or lockers.

The report doesn’t come up with any definitive answers but it does focus on the key question. Among the three main actors in this landscape (individuals, organisations and governments) “dialogue about personal data is currently anchored in fear, uncertainty and doubt,” it says.  We need “ to restore trust in the personal data ecosystem. Central to this dialogue is the inclusion of individuals, who play an increasingly important role as both data subjects and as data creators”.

Going forward, including individuals in the debate shouldn’t be left to the rarifed atmosphere of WEF forums. It’s something every company needs to do with its customers.

Alan Mitchell