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Whose Data Is It Anyway?

In a world coming to terms with the ideas of “Big Data”, one of the really interesting discussions in the area is around data possession.

Most people think that the data collected about them intrinsically belongs to them.  This is especially the case when it comes to health and biometrics data, like those collected by Fitbit, Garmin, Withings, or any number of step/heart rate/weight/activity trackers.  After all, it’s data about you and your body, right?  So we tend to believe that they are like our medical records, and we should be able to take them with us from one provider to another.

However, we don’t necessarily feel this way about other data gathering and tracking practices.  I mean, if you wanted to review if you’ve been eating better, you probably wouldn’t ask your local grocer to pull you a report of the shopping habits associated with your loyalty card.  That’s information they’ve tracked about you to bolster their offerings and they wouldn’t want it shared with another grocery chain.  Yet, we’d probably expect Fitbit to give us our data so we could transfer it over to Garmin if we changed devices.

You might think I’m comparing apples and oranges, so lets go with a more direct example involving biometrics.  Let’s say you got screened for TSA Pre-Check recently and had your fingerprints scanned.  Then you volunteered to chaperone an upcoming field trip at your kid’s elementary school, but need to complete a background check.  If you called up the TSA, would you expect them send your fingerprints over for the background?  Likely not, and fingerprints are one of the most unique personal identifiers we know of today.

It’s a fine line that many of these businesses and agencies end up walking, but it’s important to realize that much of the data that is tracked about us that we consider “ours” probably isn’t.  Much of that data likely wouldn’t be captured without the devices we use, and we voluntarily provide it to them, so we shouldn’t presume ownership.

And as devices start collecting more and more data about us, the water is going to get much murkier, and it will be interesting to see how the law progresses alongside those changes.

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