In 2019, the data privacy debate took Davos by storm. From respected artists to blue-chip CEOs, many weighed in on the data privacy debate during the World Economic Forum. Among the views that took the spotlight, one solution to protect personal data gathered strength: every individual should own and control all their data.

The popular musician and entrepreneur William Adams, better known as will.i.am, recently wrote in the pages of The Economist: “The ability for people to own and control their data should be considered a central human value. The data itself should be treated like property and people should be fairly compensated for it.”

A few days later, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said during a panel highlighted as one of the key moments in Davos that the default position had to be that people owned their own data in order to protect it as a human right. And even Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, penned a magazine column asking for “meaningful, comprehensive federal privacy legislation (...) to put consumers in control of their data (and) shine a light on actors trafficking with your data behind the scenes.”

Unrealistic expectations

With such momentum swinging behind the “own your data” camp, it is important to stop and think how realistic this is and not to lose sight of the improvements big data brings to our society. We all agree nobody wants a big corporation messing with our private data. And with every new data breach scandal, the public is increasingly outraged that our digital footprints are making a few companies rich off users' personal information. This not only yields money, it also allows these giant companies to keep a competitive edge through insights and knowledge that smaller and more transparent businesses and organizations cannot access.

In theory, the concept of owning and managing your data — even receiving money for it — sounds positive. But in fact, this reveals unrealistic expectations and widespread misconceptions about how data works and what people can and should do with personal data. Is it my data when I switch a light on at home, signaling to the power station it has to deliver energy? Shouldn’t we allow the utility company to analyze consumer data to calculate adequate supply? When the post office delivers me more cards around holiday times, do I own that fact? Or should the post office be able to coordinate routes and staffing for an optimal service based on mail data patterns?

We need to ask: Can we really control and manage all our data? The short answer is no. As CEO of Quadrant, a company managing more than 57 billion real-time data records per month, I know how daunting it can be to deal with such an avalanche of information. Just to give you a glimpse: cybersecurity firm Secureworks estimates that today, a person has two or three dozen sensors on them, a modern-day car has 500 sensors in it, and a home 600. All of them generate information. Imagine all of them asking you to validate every bit of data you are producing as you go about your daily life. The legal, technical, administrative and financial nightmare that would unfold with a move to complete individual data control would far outweigh the benefits society receives from big data.

Who owns the facts for the greater good?

Even if we somehow had the capacity to manage all our own data, should we? The crucial question is: What can be considered your private data and what should be treated as public? In fact, not all our data should be treated as a “monetizable asset.” Data is not just the “new oil” for the knowledge economy. Data are also facts. Tiny bits of micro information, that, when aggregated, can be used to unleash society’s’ hive-mind power to build smarter cities, run more efficient businesses and improve decision-making processes, from healthcare to economic policies.

Not every debate about “personal” data involves someone’s family and lifestyle, some can be as mundane as whether the pizza company owns the fact I like a pepperoni topping. All, though, must be taken into consideration. If I drive my car through a toll booth, who owns the fact that I passed by a precise point at a specific time? Should I be the one to decide how this information is going to be used? Should it be up to every individual to decide whether to allow the authorities to use transit data to take measures against congestion? Who decides if this aggregated data can be shared with the emergency services to improve response plans with the best routes to reach a car accident?

Transparency, trust and innovation

So, I question whether the best solution is really to offload onto users all the responsibility of managing their privacy. I believe this proposed absolute ownership solution would only make the problem worse. It would widen the data gap between elite corporations with access to data and medium- and small-sized businesses without that competitive edge. This would reinforce large monopolies and crush innovation, leading to even greater concentration of power in the next era of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The data ownership proposals emanating from current market leaders may be appealing to idealist individuals. But these same proposals would also conveniently strengthen these big corporations’ stranglehold on collected data. And either way, it would do nothing to solve the grave problem of utilizing someone’s personal data against them.

Data Privacy Facebook employee Dan Shinaberry (right) talks to visitors as the social network Facebook opens a pop-up kiosk for one day in Bryant Park in New York, to field questions about its data-sharing practices and teach users how to understand its new privacy controls, Dec. 13, 2018. Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Does this then mean we should abandon any effort to protect and control our personal data? Of course not. Saying individuals should be proprietaries of all the data they produce is as far-fetched as saying they should control none of it. But our approach should be a realistic, practical and balanced. We should create laws and regulations that protect people but avoid constructing walls that bolster monopolies. We can start by addressing the real problem: the current data economy is chaotic and murky, controlled by monopolies that record information about us that we even don’t know about. At Quadrant, we are mapping and authenticating data working with emerging technologies to bring transparency, organization and trust to the data sphere. Responsible players in the growing industry should support an ecosystem that realigns incentives. We must swap the incentives that run the current data economy, which prize secretiveness and data hoarding, for others that reward ethical behavior and punish abuses of privacy.

In doing so, we will be putting the responsibility for data protection in the right hands — all players in the industry, from data producers to data traders to end consumers for that data. At the same time, we will narrow the data gap between big corporations and small companies, legitimate businesses and ethical organizations.

We believe we can protect our privacy without renouncing its potential for a better world. Let’s make big data available for innovators, scientists and entrepreneurs who can use it to solve real-world problems across regions, industries and disciplines.

Mike Davie is CEO of Quadrant, which maps and authenticates data, making it easier to buy and sell quality data feeds.