An excerpt from Data for All by John K Thompson
Want to stop being a passive source of free data that other people make money off of? This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to take control of their personal data. It lays out how businesses collect, use, and exploit your data (and the related dangers), and clearly explains the legislation that will overturn the existing system, and how you can use it.
It’s time to completely change your relationship with your data.
“The path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom”
Today, data is a unique and ubiquitous element in our lives. When data started out as a minor and relatively static component in our parent’s and grandparent’s lives, there was almost no attention paid to data…and rightly so.
Data was local, relatively static, was not easily shared, there was almost no infrastructure to share data between individuals or companies and even less interest in collecting, analyzing and leveraging data, and the tools for managing and integrating data were, for the most part, paper based.
The world has changed, dramatically, in relation to our ability to create, store, integrate, manage, analyze and leverage data.
Today, data is collected constantly and consistently about almost every individual and each online action taken.
What has not changed is the views of the general public about data. These two factors are why I wrote this book. Data is ubiquitous, rapidly changing, easily shared, integrated, analyzed, modeled, and acted upon with every second that passes.
The world of data has changed and would be unrecognizable by our grandparents. We as individuals need to change our views on data. As you read this book, we will discuss the opportunities that will be available to all of us to protect, manage, own and monetize our own data. Let’s get to it!
A concerning situation
Most people don’t think about the repercussions of simply sending a picture or a file. They think, “What is the big deal? I just sent a picture to my friend.” Yes, that is true that you took a picture, recorded a video, or captured a silly audio snippet and sent it to the intended recipient. And that IS what happened, but that is not the extent of what really happened.
What did really happen from an electronic perspective?
Let’s take a step back and look at what the actual process is when you record and send a piece of media over the internet; it may well change your willingness to send pictures, messages, and video quite so casually. Let’s start by thinking about what happens to such a file – even one you thought you had deleted.
Life cycle of a video, picture, text, e-mail or file
You recorded the video, the video is now on your device, even if you delete it, you simply deleted the pointer to the file or video, you did NOT delete the file.
The file is marked for possible future deletion, and the file may be deleted by your device in the future if you take some sort of action where the storage space needs to be overwritten by a new picture, video or audio, but given that most devices have much more storage than anyone really needs or uses, that file is probably still on your device forever, even when you repurpose, recycle or trade-in your device in for a new device, that file is still there.
When you share the file or video, the file is then sent to the Internet via a network. It might be the mobile device network (i.e. telephone network). It might be via a Wi-Fi network that you were connected to in a transient manner as you worked in a coffee shop, or sat on a plane, or on a train, or in the back of a car, or while you walked down the street.
Once the file is sent to the Internet, the backbone servers of the Internet send the file and the associated routing information across multiple network segments including multiple servers and routers owned by governments, telecommunication providers and more, until the file makes its way to the device of the intended recipient.
The description outlined above IS the life cycle of a file living on your device and the Internet. This is what actually happens at numerous servers and routers along the path of travel, and on the device of the recipient and of the devices, and servers and routers of every recipient that the original intended recipient forwarded or shared the file with after they received the original or copy of the forwarded file.
Some of the servers, and all the routers, log all their activity. The logs contain at the very least, sender’s device identifier, the file name, the size of the file, and the receiver’s device identifier. Yes, the core infrastructure of the network that was traversed did not and does not store the content of the file, but the existence of the file, the time of sending and receiving, the size and type of file are stored, possibly forever.
All your online actions create permanent records of your activity
As an analytics professional, I can tell you, that I don’t need what was in the file to prove that you were part of the process of recording and sending that file. If you were or are sending something that you might be embarrassed about, or is illegal, or unethical in nature you have just made a permanent record of your actions that can be resurrected at any time in the future and probably will be when you least want to be remembered for that action.
That is not the most concerning part of this scenario.
The routers and the network infrastructure parts of the Internet have been mentioned in passing, but we need to talk a bit more about the servers.
The servers DO make copies of the files – the actual content of what you recorded, stored, and sent. …And the description of how a delete operation works on your device, operates in the same manner on all of those numerous servers.
More than likely, your file will be deleted and overwritten in a short amount of time due to the amount of traffic that traverses those servers, but those servers are backed up. Backup copies are made and archived. If your file was on the server when the backup was executed, then your file has a lifetime of infinity. And to make matters worse, there are multiple servers that your file travelled to and through.
So, the chances of all the copies being deleted and none being backed up and retained is zero.
That file and all the information about when you recorded it, send it and who received it and possibly forwarded it with additional commentary is now ensconced in the digital library of the world in perpetuity.
Are you comfortable with all of these pictures, videos, tweets, texts, commentary, snarky remarks, petty comments, and more being preserved for all time?
Are you comfortable that your children are making good choices with every time they record and send something to a friend or acquaintance?
Are you aware of and in control of every action that you, your partner/spouse, children, mothers/fathers, aunts/uncles, employees, coworkers, confidants, acquaintances, and more do each and every minute of every day? Of course, you are not.
The best we can do is be armed with knowledge, understand the possible ramifications of our actions, the implications of the length of the life of the data we are creating each and every minute of every day, the potential for misuse and abuse of the information and data once it is beyond our grasp and control.
What we can do after we have amassed the needed knowledge and understanding is to make good choices. We can teach our children to make good choices. We can lead by example for all to see. We can be intelligent about our actions and about the date we create through our actions and the data that we choose to overtly record and share in any and all electronic forms.
You may say that you do not have responsibility for everyone that you know and are related to. You may say that it is not up to you to help them to make the best possible choices. I agree, you don’t hold that responsibility, and I don’t either, but, keep in mind, that by not taking that compromising photo, or recording a video that espouses a truly unfortunate perspective, or writing that post or text, or clicking on that link that makes you the next victim of a ransomware attack and unwittingly creates and makes your laptop a new host to continue to propagate a malware attack, that you are leading by example. You are making intelligent choices.
Intelligent choices by each individual help build and maintain a civil society.
That previous sentence is not hyperbole or overreach.
Each of us is responsible for our data and for the lifecycle of our data. Whether we have ever thought about it or not, it is up to us to take control of our data and to actively make conscious choices of how our data is stored, managed, and used.
Each of us holds a duty to the people we care about to help them understand the implications of their everyday actions to help them understand the implications of the data they create as byproducts of those actions:
Actions like walking down a street in Chicago or London. You may or may not know that Chicago and London are cities with the highest number of video surveillance cameras viewing city streets on a 24-hour, 7 day a week basis.
Actions like browsing websites that espouse discredited theories and lies about any number of people or topics.
Actions like taking photographs of ourselves, or parts of ourselves, or others that could prove to be incriminating or embarrassing.
Up to now, we as individuals have not been at the center of managing and controlling our data. In our discussion, over the course of this book, we will walk through why that is the case, and why it is not a failing of anyone or all of us up to this point in time, but if we persist in acting this way, oblivious to what is happening to our data with our implicit consent, and in many cases, our explicit consent, then it is our fault and we are complicit in enabling the misuse and abuse of our data, our identities, our attention, our credit scores, our reputations and more.
The current global system related to the creation and use of data has evolved from very specific foundations into what it is today. The data ecosystem was never overtly and purposely intended to become what it is today. That is because the data ecosystem has organically and rapidly evolved over the past 30 years in a globally distributed manner due to the actions of corporations, governments, individuals, and more. All of the involved entities, and there are millions, are acting on their own best, and narrowly defined, interests. No one is driving the bus, and that needs to change.
Each time you sign an agreement to share data without reading the agreement and understanding what you are agreeing to, you are making a poor choice. Sometimes there is no choice, and that is a discussion for another part of this book, but every time that you choose to share data without a clear understanding of the intended and unintended uses of that data by the company that you are sharing your data and the potential downstream uses by numerous other firms in your country of origin and many other companies and countries around the world, you are making a poor choice that has far reaching ramifications for you and all of society.
How our data rights and right to compensation have been diverted
The asymmetrical relationship that this interindustry agreement and transfer created, and the data framework that has evolved from it, shows a direct line from this first transaction and on-going transfer to the relationships we are bound by in our agreements with online platforms, social media companies and more.
When I started in the analytics business in 1989, I focused for the first 10 years or so on Consumer-Packaged Goods (CPG), (Fast Moving Consumer Goods – (FMCG) in the UK) companies. I was stunned to learn that nearly the entirety of the CPG industry in the US and FMCG industry in the UK used scanner and panel data as the basis of much of the tactical and strategic analytics that we developed, and that data was, in the most part, provided for low to no cost to them by the grocery retailers via ACNielsen and IRI.
I asked numerous people why the retailers simply gave up their data. The answers ranged from, “don’t bother me kid, this is just the way it is.” To “It has always been this way, why do you ask so many questions, just leave it alone.” To “It is just sales data anyway, it isn’t worth much.”
And today, I hear the same thing in relation to data from very smart people, informed people, people involved in the data and analytics business. I recently asked a person that I respect highly who works in the data industry about data ownership and the need for on-line companies to pay for the use of data in the same way other firms pay for the raw materials they use in production. The response was, and I am paraphrasing here, people do not care what happens to their data, they just want free e-mail.
Here is an understatement, the world has changed in the last 100 years. Just because a handful of grocery store owners and operators did not have an appreciation for the value of an asset in 1923, do we need to still continue on this path of disempowerment?
I don’t think that we do. The rights of individuals to own, protect, manage and monetize their data has been usurped by a past that has little to no relevance to the data ecosystem we have today. Companies around the world have acted like they own our data. That is not true and is only a temporary situation that will change in the near future. Let’s examine where we are today in relation to our data rights, data ownership and our ability to monetize our data.
The proliferation and use of data will not abate anytime soon, and I am not writing this book to call for a reduction in the use of data, quite the opposite. My professional career and interests are firmly rooted in the widespread use of data and analytics.
My interest in writing this book to help each individual reader to understand their role in creating data related to all their activities – online and offline. To understand their current role in the data ecosystem. To provide each reader with a clear view and understanding of what is being done with their data. To understand how their data is being collected, integrated, processed, sold, resold, leveraged and how that entire process from data creation to use and reuse impacts them, their families, their children, their communities, societies, and world at large.
I am writing this book as a call to action for people who care about how society is being impacted by data and those that are using it for their best interests and, in part, against our best interests.
The past of data need not be the future of data. This means that data must be viewed differently by the public, which means, in turn, that people need to made aware of what is being done with their data and what steps they can take to wrench back control of it from predatory corporations.
The current model and mode of operating related to collecting and using our data has been built by people who do not have our best interests in mind. This can change, this does not need to be the way things are. The world of data can and, in my opinion, should, and will change.
Individuals can, and will, take an active part in the management/control, use, and monetization of their data. Today, individuals can engage in this process, but it is disjointed, complicated, time consuming, and most people do not see the value in engaging the current process to limit and control their data.
This fundamental change in the world of data does not need to be adopted by a majority of the populace. A small, vocal, influential minority can affect this change. Those are the people that I am writing this book for. The people who can see and want change. That is not everyone. That is not even a slim majority.
I am talking about the Future of Data. This future can only be seen as glimmers today. This is not an altruistic endeavor. This is a capitalistic vision and operation. I am not expecting or seeking a revolution of the general population. Forward thinking governments have started to discuss the creation and regulation of data exchanges and data commons. Companies will follow with offerings and capabilities where it will be simple for every person to make choices about the use of their data. These companies will make money from enabling individuals in the process of proactively managing, controlling, sharing, monetizing their data.
Commercial firms will be founded to manage, control, and monetize the data from each and every individual. It will be simple, easy and a substantial portion of the general population will participate. When this happens, the data world will shift dramatically. The power will irrevocably move from harmful, dangerous companies like Meta to the individual.
Again, I want to be clear, I want millions of people to read this book and take the lessons and information to heart. I believe that an informed population can and will make better decisions, but I am under no illusions that I am going to move millions of people to act or change their behavior, but I do expect to affect social change with this book and these ideas. This book is an addition to a movement that is starting on a global basis. When it picks up momentum, this data movement will be unstoppable.
Why do I believe this? Because it has to happen. I believe that the arc of human history bends toward the best possible outcome for the global population. The current data industry, data use and value that is extracted from data is imbalanced and is in favor of people and organizations that are working against the common good. This is a wrong that needs to be, and will be corrected, by the evolution of the data industry toward a new model that delivers value to every individual.
There will still be people who value free services and are willing to freely give their data to companies in exchange for those services. Those individuals will continue to be fodder for the misuse of their data, and they will continue to be targeted for products, services, and offerings. They might even find the targeting to be valuable and comforting.
This book is a signal of what is coming in the realm of data. There is no doubt that this future is hard to see, and many people do not agree that this will happen, but it will. When it does, a significant portion of the global population will choose to take control of their data.
Let’s continue with our discussion to learn about the subtleties and contours of what the new world of data will look like and how you and your family and loved ones will benefit from being in the vanguard of this new world.
Who is this book for?
This book is for everyone who produces data and wants to learn how to take control of it.
Asleep no more…onward!
 Justin Bariso, January 30, 2021, Tim Cook May Have Just Ended Facebook. Looks like it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy, https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/tim-cook-may-have-just-ended-facebook.html
 A European Strategy for data, July 2020, https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/strategy-data