There’s no Such Thing as “Your Data”


In last week’s issue, Chris Kernan-Schmidt — opinion editor emeritus, gentleman and scholar — wrote a piece called “The Best Privacy Protection is Common Sense.”

He writes about “your data” and “our personal data,” and I’m not sure what he means. It’s not his fault; those terms are used a lot. But they are incredibly sloppy terms that obscure more than they clarify, consequently causing more fear than is necessary.

“Your data” is not yours in any meaningful way. It does not belong to you, and you didn’t make it. It is not your property, and tech companies don’t take it from you — no one can take something from you that isn’t yours in the first place.

At first glance, the previous paragraph looks absurd, but what’s truly absurd is the idea of “your data.”

The data tech companies collect when you use their products is information about you. It’s essentially your demographics combined with a list of your favorite things. Now, that list of favorite things is massive, and probably includes some things you didn’t even know were your favorite things, but at the end of the day, it’s a list of your favorite things. It’s information about yourself, and you don’t own it.

Imagine a world where you do own information about yourself. For instance, in that world everyone would wear the same clothing. Why? Because clothing is an easy way that people convey information about themselves.

As I type, I’m wearing a Calgary Flames T-shirt. By walking outside wearing this shirt, people assume, both reasonably and correctly, that the Flames are my favorite NHL team. And just like that I gave away information about myself. The horror! In a world where I owned that information, the knowledge of my favorite hockey team, I would never just give it away for free. If we all wore the same clothing, nobody would be able to gather information from our unique dress, and our information would be safe.

The grocery store would be a very different place in a world where you own information about yourself. If I happened to be in the chip aisle at the same time as you and saw you buying Doritos, I would assume you like Doritos. Oh no! I just stole information from you, and I wasn’t even trying.

Grocery stores would have to revert back to their old model, where you give a clerk your shopping list and he or she grabs those items off the shelves. Except there would be the added twist that the clerk would bring the items back to you in a sealed box and would be contractually obligated to never tell anyone what you bought. In our imaginary world where you own information about yourself, these clerks would be some of the highest-paid members of society, so important is the information they possess.

Conversations with your friends would be totally different too. You would still talk about your favorite movies and bands, but it might be smart to have them sign non-disclosure agreements since they would then be taking possession of information about you. Alternatively, you could charge them money for the privilege, but then they would own the information and could broadcast it to the world or resell it to others, so the NDA would probably be safer.

That world is not only absurd, it’s miserable. Thank goodness we live in this one, where we don’t own information about ourselves, and massive tech companies can sell data to advertisers and make a profit.

Before the tech companies came along, you didn’t even know you “had” data. They created data by recycling cybertrash. Whenever you use a website, you leave electronic traces of your visit. They’re completely insignificant to you, and when the internet first came to be, they were insignificant to everyone. Then, brilliant entrepreneurs figured out a way to collect that cybertrash and recycle it into something useful: advertising data.

That’s why you don’t have to buy a subscription to Google search. How much would you be willing to pay per month to have more knowledge than you could possibly imagine a few keywords away? $100? $1,000? Fortunately, you don’t need to think about that because Google figured out a way to profitably provide that service to you by collecting information about you that you didn’t know existed. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but Google search is a pretty darn cheap one.

Once you realize you don’t own information about yourself, and tech companies are just recyclers of cybertrash, a lot of Chris’ concerns about data vanish. Tech companies aren’t taking something that belongs to you, and there’s no reason to be vigilant and protect electronic scraps that aren’t yours.

What we should be concerned about is not the information tech companies collect about us, but rather the impressions we make on the people around us. That’s where we need Chris’ original prescription: common sense.