How Valuable is Your Personal Data?


Pressure has been growing in the past few weeks for politicians and regulators to clamp down on the monopoly power of Big Tech. Indeed, scrutiny is growing among media watchers and corporate leaders as the growing value and vast gains being made using personal data.

In my view, the ‘owning’ of IP, and the data to generate it, will totally overturn the patent system. Traditionally, the creation of IP was based on ideas and concepts that could be clearly defined, but now it has become based on data and ownership of that data, and giving away the IP means the system is really not free at all.

A key consideration that everyone overlooks, and the point I want to make, is that most terms and conditions allow vendors to use your data freely in any way they select, if it is within that organization. So, all your pictures on Facebook are used to teach networks for facial recognition. Now, what if that was then used later, say in 10 years, for an autonomous killing system in a war zone? You did not give permission for this to be done, but you did give permission to use your data and actually taught the system with your actions and tagging.

In a recent blog post by my colleague Laurie Brasner, Seal’s general counsel, she wrote about her experiences in performing various tasks as a young lawyer early in her career, and working hard to understand not just the task at hand, but the “why” within the task--to understand the bigger picture.

Today, many people overlook some or all of the finer details of tasks, and also grasp the bigger pictures of legal work. It may be because they just don’t have the time or willingness to put in the extra hard yards. But, as Laurie detailed, it’s those hard yards that can really count. It was this view that made me ponder the question within the title of this blog — do people know who they are working for, and providing valuable Intellectual property for free?

In this digital age, information about people’s lives is held as a set of linked elements within applications. From private applications, like medical records, to public ones, such as Facebook. Our purchase history is used to target further advertisements, and companies such as Facebook use this information to make vast revenues from advertisements. When you look closely at the market, just two firms control over 90 percent of all digital marketing and revenue.

So, how did those companies achieve such market dominance? The simple answer is because you and I let them. All of us helped them, some knowingly, some or most unknowingly. Every time you post or comment on a post on Facebook, or react in some way to a public event, it’s recorded, tracked and used to learn from. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two most dominant marketing and advertising, social and information distribution networks are also two of the largest four AI (artificial intelligence) players.

The information we share with those applications is done without a thought, in many cases, for how that data will be used or kept. You are giving away hours of work without knowing it. Just think for a moment about your own Facebook account. It automatically presents you with stories that are relevant to you, and filters away items that it thinks are less interesting. Over time, users are presented with a view of the world that conforms to their own views and opinions.

Humans are like AI--we learn from the data that is fed to us, and our views are formed by the items and events that surround us from the moment we are born. So, if we are only given information that reinforces our views, you can guess what happens.

An example of what could happen is Tay.AI. This bot learned in a similar way as humans might, being fed information and learning from it, without supervision or corrective actions. As we later discovered, the results were far from positive. So, with all the data we produce, how do we know it’s going to be used correctly, and effectively, and not used to create a monster?

It is not just social applications that amass information. Various businesses and law firms are also freely giving away intellectual property that they have developed without knowing it. The value of intellectual property is hard to quantify when you are creating it, but once you have lost the IP or someone else controls it, it becomes priceless, as it’s impossible to regain, once it’s given away.

Many cloud vendors have terms and conditions that hide or obfuscate complex interlinking clauses about who owns the IP that is created on their platforms. Very often it isn’t the customers or the end users that provided it who own the data, but the cloud and application providers themselves.

As organizations start to use AI, they are looking to gain an edge. They spend many hours creating new and better ways to detect and extract information from within contracts, often creating new classes of information extraction and interpretation, but is all that work ownable? In most cases it’s not—it’s owned by the platform on which they are creating the data sets. Those firms are effectively working for someone else, and giving away their IP, without knowing it.

Losing ownership of the IP can be disastrous. Just imagine when your company is looking to use all that hard work to create competitive advantage, yet, you suddenly find out you don’t own any of it, and at worst, that other law firms have access to the models or improvements you created.

Some platforms understand this issue, and at no time is any customer IP owned by anyone else than the customer. The best platforms enable customers to take control of the info they wish to share, and with whom, via encrypted distribution and digital applications for information extraction.

The creation of ‘extraction packs’ allows businesses to issue private extraction applications to only predetermined groups or companies, and to revoke access if they need to. All information is secured and encrypted in such a way that only the target users can run the models, and even if someone has access to running the models, they are not able to see or interact in any way with the data. At no time do the original contracts ever leave the customers’ systems, and they don’t unknowingly work for someone else.

In my view, the goal of data-driven platforms should not be to own their customers’ IP—it should be to allow their customers to create, own, and distribute information, when, how and to whom they see as appropriate. Companies can collaborate on extractions safe in the knowledge that customer data is never given away. Companies can learn from each other and build the applications to automate information retrieval on a shared basis.

Everyone should be aware of the real terms and conditions they are agreeing to, and more specifically, how any information or actions are used to learn from and kept. That is especially important for businesses that create intellectual property, to know who the real owner of any models or training is, as you should know what you will be giving away freely. Like Laurie says, you should read and take time to understand the contracts T and Cs, to fully understand what you will give away—before it’s too late.

About the Author: Kevin Gidney has held various senior technical positions within Legato, EMC, Kazeon, Iptor and Open Text. His roles have included management, solutions architecture and technical pre-sales, with a background in electronics and computer engineering, applied to both software and hardware solutions.

Edited by Mandi Nowitz
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