A Perspective on Private Data

By Teka Thomas
posted on December 3, 2013 in Politics and Society, Security/Intelligence
Internet companies and government agencies possess a remarkable ability to collect reams of private data and communications. That data has tremendous marketing value to businesses, and intelligence value for governments. People are concerned that the U.S. and foreign governments, as well as hackers, can sometimes access this information, and the controversy has led to a clamor for tougher privacy laws around the world. 
As far as business goes, this global struggle for privacy can be framed as a classical debate, the struggle to strike a balance between human rights and property rights. Consumers want to know their personal information is secure, while companies want to do as they wish with it. Most consumer feel that they have, legally, natural rights in their own beings and identities, and that this personal information should not be sold without some process. Information about where and when emails were sent, as well as data from searches ought not be shared without anyone the consumer does not designate. Opposing this theory are the prerogatives companies have in using and profiting off of items they have title to. These firms store metadata and search records, and contractual language says they can control it.
Internet companies make large profits from selling the data, particularly if it is packaged by demographics. Those revenues, usually exchanged for market information and commercial intelligence, are central to the business models of these companies. They argue it is their right to do what they like with the data, since it is their legal property, as the user agreements usually stipulate. That includes selling the data to other businesses. On the other hand, their customers see the transfer of privacy information for safekeeping, as a contractual matter, and that Internet companies should not take advantage of it. Consumers want court rulings and legislation recognizing, despite the lengthy waivers they sign, that the real agreement here is for internet companies to transmit our communications, but safeguard private data from others consumers don’t authorize. A modern incarnation of the classic debate between human and property rights.