What does Data Ownership Mean?


(Ben McNamee) #1

Last week I had the opportunity to attend RightsCon in Toronto. Rights Con is an annual conference hosted by Access Now that focuses on Human Rights in the Digital Age. With over 2000 attendees from around the world, and over 450 sessions, attendees could really make the conference that they wanted. I focused my time on sessions around data and analytics ethics. The theme that came through was clearly centered around the concept of data ownership.

In the vast majority of cases, when data is collected from an individual, legal ownership is held by the organization collecting the info. The ethics of how that data is used are then determined by the regulations governing the organization, and by the organizational ethics of the data owner. In many cases, such as the social good space, the ethics between data providers and data collectors is fairly well-aligned, but in many others there is a large disconnect. A clear example of this disconnect can be seen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook users data was used for ethically dubious ends. An case closer to home lies in the racial inequalities inherent in police carding data.

However, Anahi Ayala Iacucci from Internews presented a wholly different perspective on data ownership. To say that an individual owns their data is akin to saying they own their body. It isn’t really a legal matter, as much as an existential matter. I’ve been grappling with this question for almost a week now, and am no closer to finding any answer as to what the implications of this are for the current data ecosystem. To what extent does this re-framing of data ownership make us re-think how we collect, share, and govern data? To what extent does this re-framing ensure (or not) that data can be used for inclusion rather than exclusion? Thoughts?