There's No Such Thing as "Your" DataOr: I'd Like to Sell You the Moon
Spoilers if you're woefully behind on Game of Thrones, but there's a moment in season 2 of the show, Lord Varys is speaking to Tyrion Lannister on the nature of power. He asks the half-man who a sellsword would obey, a king, a priest, or a rich man, if each bid him kill the other two. The riddle has no answer, however. The point isn't the answer, the point is the problem. There is no way to resolve the question of who truly has the power when all parties involved disagree on who has the power.
"Power resides where men believe it resides," Lord Varys concludes.
Property ownership stems from a similar concept. Aside from our own bodies, there's nearly nothing we truly "own" outside of a more-or-less universally acknowledged social contract. So far, science hasn't created a way for one person to take control over another person's body, but everything else—your clothes, your car, your home, your various toys—can be removed from your possession if someone can find a way to engineer, through the shared social contract, that it belongs to them instead of you. You can be taxed, fined, penalized, charged, or sued for your property. The contract is elaborate and full of loopholes.
Yet, it's better than the alternative. If not for this social construct, anyone who walks inside your home and takes your TV becomes its owner, purely by virtue of having it. We don't like it when some rule or law says we owe someone something of ours, but we much prefer it to an anarchic law of pure possession.
There's just one little niggle with this contract of ours: it was never designed to account for information. Historically speaking, the idea of even owning information is relatively new. The earliest copyright laws—which granted the creator of a work exclusive rights to duplication and distribution of said work—first appeared in the early 18th century. It would still be hundreds of years, however, before the concept of "data" as we understand it even began to develop.
The internet revolution happened incredibly quickly, as historical events go. In a single generation, the average person has gone from having no computer of any kind in their home to having a device capable of observing and recording video, audio, location, and motion in their pockets. Devices that can communicate with nearly any of the other devices that are also recording information. Oh, and collectively, we have the ability to store that data in ways never thought possible.
Between copyright and privacy laws, we've gotten ourselves tricked into believing that there's such a thing as data ownership. If the government starts pulling your GPS records without a warrant, they get in trouble because that's a form of privacy invasion. If you post a photo online and someone takes it, crops out your watermark, and posts it on their website, they've violated copyright.
If someone follows you around and writes down every place you visit, but does nothing with this information, they have broken no laws. There is no legal concept that states you are sole proprietor and owner of the information regarding your life and that the mere collection of this information is a violation.
While you might be able to argue that a human being in this example would be guilty of some kind of stalking law, that technicality is irrelevant. You carry dozens if not hundreds of "people" around in your pocket. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and all of the many, many apps you have installed on your phone can gather far more information than a stalker following you around could, and they can do so almost invisibly.
There's almost no end to the types of data that can be collected about you. Forget the really private things like financial statements or emails and messages. The places you go, the number of steps you take, which apps you use, when you talk to people, what time you use your device. Nearly every action you take can be a data point to analyze and understand how people behave.
Analyzing that data is incredibly lucrative, too. Not for you, of course. Unless you're working for one of these companies, you probably don't have the means to analyze your data in any meaningful way. Partially because it's cumbersome for you to collect your own data, and partially because your data is useless without data from hundreds, thousands, or even millions of other people. However, Google can use "your" data to do all kinds of amazing things.
If I enter the phrase "ren and stimpy k" into Google, the search engine will suggest that the word I'm about to type may be "kowalski", "kilted yaksman", or "kitty litter". All of these seemingly random words are meaningful, specific, and relevant. How? How in the ridiculous hell could Google know that the letter "k" is meant to indicate "kowalski", much less "kilted yaksman"?
Data. Someone else's, actually. These results aren't my personal history. They belong to someone else. At some point in the past, some person who isn't me put those terms into the search engine. By recording this data and analyzing it, Google is able to improve my search experience.
This is exciting, but it's also terrifying. It will be uncomfortable to hear, but it's necessary in the modern world to accept a simple truth: you are incapable of preventing all possible data tracking. Cameras, satellites, and software virtually everywhere ensure that, no matter how much technology you eschew, someone can get some data off of you. Your local store tracks your purchases. Your cell carrier tracks your calls. Your area's law enforcement tracks the roads and intersections you drive down every day. Unless you plan to move to the mountains and hide from humanity, some piece of data that describes you will be tracked.
It's tempting, knowing this, to at least regain some kind of control. Someone's going to track it, but at least it's mine, right? This GPS data describes where I have been, so it must be mine.
Do you know who owns the Moon? Well, that depends on who you ask (1). A number of people and organizations have claimed to own the Moon in part or in full for hundreds of years. Yes, hundreds. Even before a single human being had ever set foot on it, there were those who claimed to own it. Thus far, none of these claims are recognized by any government or authority. While there is an international Outer Space Treaty, ratified by all the major space-faring nations, that says no country can claim territorial sovereignty of celestial bodies, the much less popular Moon Treaty (yes these are real things) states that no private individual or organization can own extraterrestrial real estate. No major space-faring nation has ratified the agreement. Officially, there is no authority or government that either recognizes or forbids ownership of the moon.
At the moment, ownership of data is only slightly less enigmatic. As stated earlier, your rights can be infringed if your privacy is invaded or if your intellectual property is illegally duplicated. However, legally, you have no more of a claim to "ownership" over your data than Google does. Legally speaking, you'll have exactly the same difficulty proving you own the rights to your heart rate data as you will in proving that you own land on the moon.
This might not always be the case. Individual nations and international organizations are attempting to establishing rules governing who can collect what data and what they're allowed to do with it(2). However, the issue is more complex than simply establishing that you own any data that describes your life. In fact, if it were suddenly the case that all governments and corporations are only allowed to collect data about you if you specifically authorize it, life will get a lot more complicated. We already experience complications that arise from giving content creators exclusive rights to distribution of their media (does having the TV on in the background of a home video count as violating copyright? This is a real question some lawyers have had to answer). Imagine extending that same complication to anything that anyone is able to measure regarding your life. Suddenly, you'd have to sign a legal release every time you swipe your credit card or walk through a store equipped with security cameras.
The question of who owns your data is not an easy one to solve. It becomes particularly problematic because you create data (whether or not it gets recorded) every time you leave your house. The number of steps you take, whether you look ahead or at the ground, what types of clothes you wear, and any number of decisions you make in view of other people are all potential data points (psychological researchers sometimes make use of this information by observing the behavior of people's behavior in public, which would be classified as data collection by any definition).
However, there's one thing that is absolutely clear: you are not the "owner" of your data purely by virtue of being associated with it. The effects of a data tracking culture on privacy is a legal issue that will evolve over the next few decades, to be sure. There are legitimate claims to be made that corporations and governments abuse your data. There may even be legitimate reasons to be upset because a company is profiting from "your" data. That still won't change this one fundamental truth.
You don't "own" data just because it's about you.