reclaim responsibility

Data is the New Gold

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You know too much. Source: PR

What if, each time big tech companies used our data, from shares to likes and browsing, we got a piece of the pie?

Data scientist Andreas Wiegend calculated that this pie would end up small and hard to come by, worth $3.50, the price of a cappuccino.

He came up with the sum by dividing up Facebook’s profits per user and it is partly the discrepancy between those two that drove him to write a call to arms, “Data for the People,” a book about the power of data and how easily people give it away. He writes if people can’t be recompensed financially, they should at least be able to get a seat at the table, and decide how their data is used.

Formerly head of research at Amazon, he turned evangelist, preaching about data and how people need to claim back the power they give away so easily. People create data each moment they are online. That data has made Facebook one of the most valuable companies in the world, worth more than the four most valuable German firms – SAP, Siemens, Bayer and Allianz. Facebook and its peers feed our data into its algorithms, increase its knowledge daily and further strengthen its market position.

Mr. Wiegend’s concerns address the nature of the relationship between all the data we submit and what we receive in return. Internet users tend to accept companies’ default settings in exchange for easy, convenient access to entertainment and information that helps them make decisions. Sometimes, that exchange is worth it. But people have no way of knowing when and whether relinquishing the data is worth it.

Originally a student of physics and philosophy in Europe, Mr. Wiegend moved to Stanford, and set up a lab for social data – then spent three years writing his book which has become part of his quest.

His fear is that companies use technology to exclude others while claiming to be transparent. He was dismayed when his former employer Amazon patented a technology that could be used with the company’s grocery chain Whole Foods Market. The software registers when shoppers check prices against those of rivals via the free internet connection and then stops connection. “For me, this is an example of data against the people,” he said. While it is unclear how Amazon actually intends to use the patent, he believes people need to be vigilant if the internet is to deliver on the promise of information accessible for all.

People would need new software in order to be able to see – edit, correct, hide, delete – what companies know about them and shape what they do with that information. Tech companies could develop the necessary algorithms but would they?

Mr. Wiegend’s passion is partly drawn from anger. He had a YouTube channel once, with years’ worth of lectures on it. Suddenly it disappeared. He emailed an inquiry, and was offered a video showing him how to set up a new channel. The breach of trust still upsets him, he said, comparing it to asking a friend to safeguard a box of photos only to lose it ten years later.

Each of his arguments and comparisons leads us back to the same question – how ready we are to question the efficiency we have and fight for greater control of our data.

This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de

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