Automation may take our jobs, but personal data will save our paychecks

Literal human capital.
Literal human capital.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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This story is part of What Happens Next, our complete guide to understanding the future. Read more predictions about the Future of Work.

Data is the new oil” is a trope that needs to die an unceremonious death. Here’s why:

We’re the oil in the metaphor. And we’re being tapped for all we’re worth.

Enough with the crude references: It’s time to recognize our data are an asset whose value is unequally divided in the global marketplace. While we may benefit from “free” services in exchange for our information, we aren’t aware of the full value of our data.

And we’re not supposed to be. We’ve been trained to think our data is worthless, because if we knew its true value, we would never be so liberal about trading it for convenience.

We need to protect it because then we can control it. Once we control it, we can have direct relationships with the advertisers and brands who currently pay data brokers money for what is often erroneous information about our lives. The money will stop going to the interlopers and will be paid directly to us.

Our future work as our own personal data brokers means we have to define our digital lives for ourselves. If we don’t articulate our values at an algorithmic level, somebody else will.

At Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before the joint Senate judiciary and commerce committees hearing in April, he responded to a question from senator John Cornyn by saying, “There’s a very common misperception about Facebook—that we sell data to advertisers. We don’t sell data to anyone.” He went on to explain that they connect advertisers to Facebook users (at an enormous profit) based on what personal information people share.

Zuck’s explanation of how Facebook makes its money elucidates the opportunity we all have to directly benefit from our data: We need to become our own middleman.

The data-broker industry makes well over $200 billion annually by selling our information. According to Newsweek, Acxiom, one of the largest data brokers, claims to have an average of 1,500 pieces of information on more than 200 million Americans. This information is put into lists making it easier for advertisers and brands to directly target consumers based on their preferences. Your life and actions, interpreted by algorithms, are sold to the highest bidder.

But guess who knows the most about your personal preferences?


The first step toward making money from our data involves control, best defined by PIMS (the data protocol, not the tasty summertime drink). The European Data Protection Supervisor defines Personal Information Management Systems as “systems that help give individuals more control over their personal data…allowing (them) to manage their personal data in secure, local, or online storage systems and share them when and with whom they choose.” There is an entire ecosystem of PIMS providers already providing solutions for individuals to maintain control of their data and agency.

The second step involves identity. Once you can prove your data belongs to you, then your insights provide unique value in the marketplace, transforming your information from a commodity into currency. There’s a growing web of organizations like Sovrin providing ways for you to prove who you are via decentralized means.

The third step involves all of us creating our own digital terms and conditions. Companies like Meeco are setting a precedent along these lines, allowing people to access, control, and share personal data on your terms.

To see an example of how this would look in action, check out Privacy Assistant. It’s a tool created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon that uses machine learning to teach users how they can share their data based on their own terms and values. While the tool focuses largely on terms and conditions for privacy, it’s easy to imagine users creating more broad terms of how they’d like their data shared with advertisers and brands more generally. When shared via blockchain or trusted peer-to-peer providers, finite amounts of data for single transactions being exchanged will promote greater trust between users and brands. This will also allow brands to greatly diminish the cost of customer acquisition (such as through Facebook ads) and buying erroneous data from third-party brokers, as they’ll be able to go directly to the users themselves for direct and specific information about their lives.

By securing our identity and defining the terms for how our information should be shared, we can start making money from our data. While there will still be value in tracking our actions and behaviors from the outside, we’ll be the only ones providing the guaranteed subjective truth of who we are from the inside. When it comes to privacy, instead of asking “What are you trying to hide,” we should be asking “What is ours to reveal?”

This story is part of What Happens Next, our complete guide to understanding the future. Read more predictions about the Future of Work.