Leon Neyfakh via
Taken together, the information that millions of us are generating about ourselves amounts to a data set of unimaginable size and growing complexity: a vast, swirling cloud of information about all of us and none of us at once, covering everything from the kind of car we drive to the movies we’ve rented on Netflix to the prescription drugs we take.
Who owns the data in that cloud has been the subject of ferocious debate. It’s not all stored in one place, of course — our lives are tracked and documented by a diffuse assortment of entities that includes private companies like Google and Visa, as well as governmental agencies like the IRS, the Department of Education, and the Census Bureau. Up to now, the public conversation on this kind of data has taken the form of an argument about privacy rights, with legal scholars, computer scientists, and others arguing for tighter restrictions on how our data is used by companies and the government, and consumer advocates instructing us on how to prevent our information from being collected and misused.
But a small group of thinkers is suggesting an entirely new way of understanding our relationship with the data we generate. Instead of arguing about ownership and the right to privacy, they say, we should be imagining data as a public resource: a bountiful trove of information about our society which, if properly managed and cared for, can help us set better policy, more effectively run our institutions, promote public health, and generally give us a more accurate understanding of who we are. This growing pool of data should be public and anonymous, they say — and each of us should feel a civic responsibility to contribute to it.
In a paper forthcoming in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, Brooklyn Law School professor Jane Yakowitz introduces the concept of a “data commons” — a sort of public garden where everyone brings their data to be anonymized and made available to researchers working in the public interest. In the paper, she argues that the societal benefits of a thriving data commons outweigh the potential risks from the crooks and hackers who might use it for harm.
Yakowitz’s paper has found support among a wider movement of thinkers who believe that, while protecting people’s privacy is certainly important, it should not be our only priority when it comes to managing information. This position might be a hard sell at a time when consumers are increasingly worried about mass data leaks and identity theft, but Yakowitz and others argue that we shouldn’t let fear of such inevitable accidents cloud our ability to see just how necessary data collection is to our progress as a society.
“There are patterns and trends that none of us can discern by looking at our own individual experiences,” Yakowitz said. “But if we pooled our information, then these patterns can emerge very quickly and irrefutably. So, we should want that sort of knowledge to be made publicly available.”
The power of publicy.