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Data privacy: Who really owns the digital you?

We need more clarity about the exploitation of our digital footprints...

We need more clarity about the exploitation of our digital footprints...

Our digital identities and digital reputations are already creating wealth for others. That's why the ownership of this data is the web's next battleground, says author Tony Fish.

If the government or our employer says it is recording our phone calls, analysing our credit card use or reading our emails, we become outraged, citing infringements to liberty and invasion of privacy.

Yet if we post our photos on Flickr, blog on WordPress, tweet, note on TripIt when we are away, describe places we like on Foursquare, rate others on eBay or post recommendations on Amazon, we applaud the social engagement.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck between the personal data we provide and what we are happy for someone to do with it. When it comes to digital identity and digital footprint, everyone has an opinion based on experience and expectation.

Our digital footprints are made up from all the data we leave behind from every digital interaction. That footprint grows as we engage further and more deeply with the digital economy.

Digital footprint data is not just the details of your passport, bank account, credit card, driving licence, national insurance or NHS number. The footprint data we leave is fragmented and spread among a number of service providers. But it appears some are in a more powerful place to exploit this data - and you - than others.

We carelessly leave data with our mobile operators including call records, device history, name, home, credit rating, location and application use. Consequently a mobile operator can know about our routes and routines, our billing address, where we stay most often and who our friends are.

digital footprint

Are you aware of your digital footprint?
(Photo credit: ezioman via Flickr under the following Creative Commons Licence

Apple knows all about your favourite music, content and photos. Google knows what you are looking for before you buy it from Amazon, which only sees the purchase, but can work out if you follow the crowd or lead it and Sky knows your TV preferences.

Our digital interactions are driven by screens and the data we can collect comes from all those interactions with our TV and PC, through to screens in planes and cars, to mobile phones and iPods. However, machine-to-machine sensors...

...will also add new information to our digital footprints, such as Londoners' Oyster travelcards or sensors picking up sound levels, humidity, light and other environmental data. All these data streams form our digital footprints and raise the question: who owns the digital you today?

In simple terms, no one and no company does. However, our digital footprint, digital identity and digital reputation are creating value and wealth for others. Our privacy setting is their business model and is the reason why the ownership of this data class is the web's next battleground. Brands and service providers will fight to control our digital data and control the digital you.

As users, we get some services for free. But is this transaction a sufficiently fair trade for our privacy, data and trust? How much value is in that data? Well, it is more than £50 per person, based only on the market capitalisation of Google divided by the number of its users.

Alas, the dark side of digital-footprint data is invasion of privacy, snooping, identity fraud and the subsequent abuse of our data, which costs around £25 per person in the UK, according to Home Office estimates.

While the enlightened side argues that our data has value and the owner of the data should benefit from providing it, there is no simple answer to the question of how that ownership should be defined. At least the common ground is that everyone agrees that security is critical.

Tony Fish is the author of My Digital Footprint, which discusses the issues of data ownership and business models for content.