Data trusts are beginning to look promising as a way of wresting control of our data from hoovers such as Google and Facebook. But how effective can they be?
Data trusts are based on the principle of a normal trust where trustees of an individual or group look after the rights of said individual or group.
A twist on this idea is that of data unions, whereby a ‘union’ lobbies for the rights of a group – in this case, how its data is used.
It sounds far-fetched, given the power that we know companies such as Facebook hold over us (click yes, agree to pages of jargon that you won’t read or you can’t access our site), but these things have to start somewhere.
Trade Unions started with one man, Keir Hardie, who, in the mid-1800s, was sacked for being late once. He was a determined young man who believed that workers’ lack of rights was just wrong and fought for many years to change the situation. Through his efforts, the Labour Party in the UK was formed, and Trade Unions became a powerful force.
With data trusts or unions, we are at that early stage where relatively few people believe it is wrong for large tech companies to use our data to profit. And while it is an obvious target, Facebook can be added to a long list of companies that collect medical data, insurance data and financial data and use it to their own financial advantage.
Right now, it is unlikely that Facebook or anyone else would agree to countenance data trusts. Like the robber barons of the late 19th Century, their stance would be to sweep any such efforts under the carpet, knowing that dealing with individuals is much easier than dealing with large groups.
But data trusts do not have to be a black and white solution. It is not the case that data trustees would simply say to Facebook that their group’s data is not available. It is or should be, the case that the data trust could say to Facebook that a certain group wanted to see adverts based on gardening tools, good causes or great recipes, then surely there is co-operation to be had.
Google is planning to do away with cookies next year, which, they say, will usher in a new way of serving ads – to groups of people who have similar browser patterns. This will mean that an individual’s information will get lost in a crowd.
We have talked about privacy a lot and we have talked about Vendor Relationship Management as a method of bringing control of your data back to you. But data trusts, one of MIT’s technology techniques to watch in 2021, could be a sensible, win-win, way of achieving data control.