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Comment: It’s time for users to take control of the big-data juggernaut

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How we handle personal information in the next few years will decide whether we’re heading for utopia or dystopia, and decisions should be in the hands of users, not just the giants of industry.

In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the internet has become, “an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.” Just as political power was wrenched away from a small elite in the 19th century, so we need collective action today to make big data a force for wider social good, not as fuel for the hyper-wealthy, secretive forms of manipulation and further social inequality.

That will take a mass uprising against the giant commercial organisations like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter that are able to dominate data mining, taking advantage of their guise of sociability and a basic lack of visibility of the actual nature of their business operations to strip and trade personal information.

Individual people taking a stand on their privacy won’t have any effect. And perversely, data on the small numbers of refuseniks tells the miners even more about the population profile.

Action is needed to steer the data use of societies towards a road of human-centred data, where access is focused on criteria of social good. Data trails from people’s everyday lives should work for everyone, in the same way our taxes fund public benefit and common resources, not be siphoned off for private wealth. Not all data should be a commodity.

The first step is realising the potential for human-centred data – reaching a consensus on where access to data is appropriate and necessary, what we want to share and why. In the healthcare sector, for example, data is personal and private, but the mass of past patient cases can be used to identify and refine the most effective cancer treatments and prioritise funding for research and programmes based on actual impact.

Similarly, shared knowledge of when and where people use transport would help to deliver a needs-based system: so you don’t have unused cars left on driveways and clogging up side streets, there’s less congestion, faster journey times and reduced air pollution. Big data on lending and borrowing would allow for more micro-loans and support that builds financial and economic inclusion.

The opportunities for human-centred data are even more vivid in developing economies, where there are opportunities for ordinary people to come together to share knowledge that may be of no interest to commercial organisations. The Open Street Maps tool, which communities in remote, roadless areas of Africa are using to build local maps, is just one example.

Arguably, legislation for a global standard on data-protection law is already in place via GDPR. But it’s a framework of legislation that remains broad and vague and largely untested in courts of law. Governments, in principle, don’t want to be seen to curtail the high-growth activities of digital enterprises. And that means business as usual for many data miners.

A popular uprising is needed to demonstrate we’re all data-aware – and we’re not going to give away information unthinkingly, because big data belongs to the many. That involves customer and shareholder activism on one level, forcing large businesses to be accountable and responsible for all their behaviour in relation to data; a snowball of awareness among users of all digital devices that they are making themselves naked to the world and need to be demanding greater control; demanding organisations tell us what data they have about us. And if there’s no response, we all need to vote with our 'delete app' function.

At the same time as demanding change from larger institutions, it’s time to build new, more democratic ones together. Open-source platforms already in existence, like blockchain, cryptocurrency, Wikipedia OSM, demonstrate realms where people choose to contribute data to a function they believe in. An infrastructure that relies on consent will allow us to define what the internet is for.

What’s needed, rather than leaving commerce and powerful interests to drive the big-data juggernaut, is more expertise and leadership at a policy level in governments that can wrest back control, based on the involvement of the mass of citizens and their interests. Smarter ownership.

Because data isn't just a social issue, it's the social issue.

Dr Adrian Mallory is a researcher at Cranfield University.

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