Who owns you?

The Who once asked “Who are You?” an existential question couched in a pop-song wrapper. In the digital age the more pressing issue is who owns our data, both the information we buy and the data we create.

We face at least two issues: access and privacy.

Apple’s approach to digital rights management provides a nuanced example of the issue of access to the data we buy. When we purchase music on a CD we buy the right to listen to that music in any form on any device—instant access. When we buy a song from iTunes, Apple restricts the mobility of that material: we can synch our music collection with up to five computers but we can’t transfer the songs to an unauthorized computer.

web_boxCloud computing—the process where the data and the application that creates and displays it reside on a computer somewhere in the ether—provides an example of both issues. Here we own the data and rent the application and server space, or get it for free thanks to advertiser support. But if we can’t connect to the Internet, if we don’t have continuous access, ownership means little. And if the data isn’t locked down on our servers, is it secure?

It’s the second issue, that thorny combination of privacy and security, that causes the most concern. If access to the data we buy or create is restricted by law or logistics, can we say that we fully control it? Who does? The people who sell the data, or the companies that house it?

If data is your lifeblood, who owns it—and you?