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Metaphor alert on data: should it be anyone’s property?

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Monday, 9 March 2015

Data is in the news but we’re still working out how to think about it. Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve got the Wrong Metaphor. Let me explain.

There’s endless argy-bargy about who ‘owns’ firms’ customer data – them or their customers? And the government wants access to stored ‘metadata’ on our internet activities – what sites we’ve been to, who we’ve communicated with. Then there’s all that data governments collect through the five yearly census – next due in 2016 – which the government recently wondered aloud whether to scrap. (Should it really cost the best part of half a billion when most citizens could be surveyed online?)

As governments gear up their surveillance armoury and we disgorge terabytes of data to Facebook and Google, we’re jealous of our privacy – as well we might be. In our commercialised age, this becomes a debate about who should ‘own’ data. Yet notions of property arose to help us think about and control physical things – like personal possessions and land. Subtle traps await those using the metaphor of property to deal with incorporeal things like ideas and data.


Remarkably Thomas Jefferson explained the problem at the dawn of the information age. He’d disapprove of the term ‘intellectual property’. For him patents and copyright were state sanctioned monopolies over the most valuable thing of all – ideas. So they should be tightly constrained.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Like ideas, data is potentially reusable, endlessly valuable. Our reflex instinct to think of data as property leads to an endless cascade of consents in principle for each use of the data.

Next time you’re enduring a robot informing you of your presumed consent to its organisation’s privacy policy, while you wait to speak to a human think of this. 2003 Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley and her team linked up ‘other people’s data’ to confirm the connection between folic acid deficiencies and spina-bifida in babies and as a result markedly reduced its incidence. But without what might today be regarded as the brazenness of using people’s data without their consent, their work could never have been done. They’ve performed plenty of other miracles since, but could perform a lot more with better access to more data. And no they’ve never breached anyone’s privacy.

To protect privacy we should worry less about the blizzard of consents when the data is collected – specifying how the data will be used. Who knows how it could improve our lives in the future? It’s permissions like that, sometimes baked into legislation, that continue to obstruct the linkage of government data that could help us better understand and improve citizen health and wellbeing.

If data has been successfully aggregated so it’s ‘anonymised’ then it should be available for any research whatever it’s been collected for. There are no losers from such action, only winners. And as an additional safeguard, if someone is clever or lucky enough to de-anonymise data strict penalties should apply for circulating or improperly benefiting from their knowledge.


Which brings me to that 2016 census. You won’t ‘own’ any of the data you provide government. But your privacy will be well protected. Oh – and you won’t be asked to consent. That’s because it’s compulsory.

And while it’s hardly a paradigm for private corporations’ data or a precedent for surveillance metadata on your internet surfing, the census nevertheless remains a salutary example of a different, very valid way of thinking about data. Just as we have an obligation to pay our taxes in return for all the public goods those taxes fund, so – subject to strict privacy protection – we have an obligation to provide information to governments where that data can be anonymously aggregated to assist in generating the knowledge that functions as a public good for anyone to access, whether they are seeking to improve government services or understand the market in which they’re trying to make an honest profit.

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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