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Does Pushback Against Facebook Signal New Era of IoT Data Ownership?

Unless you live in a cave with no access to financial news you likely already know about the gloomy outlook in Facebooks earnings that have investors worried. The internet advertising powerhouse showed slowing growth due to its recent bad press and a new data regulation enacted by the European Union. This caused what turned out to be the biggest single-day loss of value for any American listed company.

One of the cultural trends that might be behind this changing attitude towards companies like Facebook is the evolving thought around who owns personal data. Some have said that there should be a licensing agreement that pays out every time someone’s data gets sold. Most take a more practical approach and say that we should at least get to control who sees our data and be able to opt out if we are not comfortable. Either way, it seems like the days of willingly putting every personal detail on the internet might be coming to a close. In its place, we might see a more thoughtful approach to data as a source of public good rather than private gain.

Fewer tech sectors create more intimate data than the Internet of Things. Connecting the physical devices around us has given us a tremendous amount of convenience but has also sacrificed privacy to the internet gods. Voice activation for devices like Amazon Alexa or Google Home is a two way street. If it can talk to you, it is listening to everything you say.

Like most meaningful changes, all parties affected have to work together. For the shift happening in IoT data privacy, this collaboration might come in the form of initiatives like decode. This consortium of organizations is creating test programs in Amsterdam and Barcelona that will “provide tools that put individuals in control of their personal data privacy.” If will use blockchain to create smart contracts that give citizen the power to control the use of their personal data, at lease theoretically. As they put it: “DECODE will explore how to build a data-centric digital economy where data that is generated and gathered by citizens, the Internet of Things (IoT), and sensor networks is available for broader communal use, with appropriate privacy protections.

As a result, innovators, startups, NGOs, cooperatives, and local communities can take advantage of that data to build apps and services that respond to their needs and those of the wider community.”

The thought is that much of this data can be used for the public good. For example, rich data sets can often help inform policymakers on the needs of the people and the impacts of their actions (or inactions). The City of Los Angeles has been collaborating with mobility companies like Lime to help better understand how to create a more walkable and bike-friendly city, something that is paramount to hitting their carbon emissions goals. Increased data transparancy could also help crack down on illegal use of real estate. One of the goals of the recode project is to make sure that landlords don’t run afoul of municipal codes that governs rentals, especially short terms rentals on sites like Airbnb.

Having increased data transparency for the public good sounds great on paper. But it will only be after these real-world pilot tests are done that we will be able to understand if creating a system that gives everyone control over their data is possible. The sentiment is there, the time seems right; it is time to see if technology can help us organize and control the data that it has helped us create.