Empowering Data Ownership With Blockchain

How social organisations can leverage blockchain to help with data ownership in the digital age


Table of Contents

  1. What Is Data Ownership & Why Is It Important?
  2. The Importance Of Personal Data Ownership In The Digital Age
  3. The Importance of Data Ownership For Organisations
  4. Data Ownership Law Explained
  5. How Data Ownership Relates To The Goals Of Social Organisations
  6. The Role of Blockchain In Data Ownership
  7. How Blockchain Provides Transparency, Control, & Accountability
  8. Real World Examples Of How Blockchain Is Being Used For Data Ownership
  9. Conclusion: The Future Of Data Ownership

What Is Data Ownership & Why Is It Important?

In the first generations of the internet, we could read and write all sorts of content, with the content (read: data) being owned by centrally-controlled internet behemoths where the data was being hosted and viewed. This data was extremely valuable, with the Economist even claiming: "The world's most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data."

Prolific Silicon Valley investor and internet pioneer Chris Dixon recently released a book called "Read, Write, Own." In the book, he explores the potent power of blockchain to reshape the future of the Internet — helping put data ownership back in the hands of the data creators. The book highlights a trend we will explore in this article — the role of modern data ownership and how blockchain is helping usher in this new paradigm.

Data ownership relates to the ownership, access, use, and control of data, and with the amount of data created forecast to grow rapidly in the coming years, data ownership is more important than ever. With the global data and analytics markets combined revenue estimated to generate $837 billion by 2027, the economic value of data means there are serious incentives for businesses to collect and leverage data.

For Example, An Average Day On The Internet Sees:

  • 294 billion emails sent
  • 65 billion messages sent on WhatsApp
  • 5 billion internet searches
  • 4 million GB of data created on Facebook
  • 4 thousand GB of data are created from each connected car

(source: visualcapitalist)

Who owns this data, where they're keeping it, how they got it, who can access it, and what you can do about it — are all concerns answered by data ownership. In this article we will explore the role and importance of data ownership, the regulatory landscape, and how blockchain is contributing to the conversation.

The Importance Of Personal Data Ownership In The Digital Age

Your chat conversations, social connections, purchases, medical history, government records, search history, emails, biometric data, places you’ve been, your age, address, and credit score — is all data. Data that paints a very detailed and intimate picture of you. You probably don't remember every conversation you had or every purchase you made, but big tech companies like Facebook might.

Perhaps you don't mind when Instagram interrupts your scrolling to suggest a pair of shoes that seem to have been directly conjured up from your subconscious, but when your data is leaked or used against you, it might not seem so innocent.

Where is Facebook and Google keeping your data? What data do they actually have? And who do do they let access it? A staggering 81% of people are reportedly not happy with the level of control they have over data collected about them and 79% of people share concerns about how businesses are using their data.

Data ownership is becoming a crucial aspect of privacy and protection for people in the digital age, and as more and more data is created and harvested, we all have an incentive to better understand data ownership.

The Importance of Data Ownership For Organisations

People's data being converted to money by capitalists

Data is not just a monetisation strategy used by big tech, but an integral component of operating any type of organisation in the digital age. Your accounting records, employee information, customer records, inventory, suppliers, processes, and many things in between — are all key pieces of data required for effectively running an organisation.

Misplaced, inaccurate, or inaccessible information can result in costly setbacks. Leaked or stolen information can be extremely damaging to all parties involved, and ineffective use or lack of data access can leave a lot on the table.

A good data ownership strategy helps protect sensitive information as well as enabling organisations to effectively leverage data whilst still maintaining trust and ensuring regulatory compliance. Data ownership is not something that organisations can afford to ignore.

Data Ownership Law Explained

Many of us opted in to online services like Gmail and Facebook well before anyone was talking about the importance of data. Movies like the Social Dilemma, scandals like the Cambridge Analytica saga, and large data breaches have all contributed to the growing awareness surrounding data ownership.

With 59% of people indicating they don't understand how their data is collected and used, the introduction of regulatory frameworks like the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) are good steps towards strengthening data ownership rights and protecting individuals' privacy in the digital world.

The GDPR is a European Union privacy regulation applicable to organisations handling the personal data of EU residents. It emphasises obtaining clear consent and granting individual rights like data access and erasure, mandates data breach notifications, and imposes substantial fines for non-compliance (looking at you, Meta).

The CCPA is a California state-level law applicable to businesses processing the personal information of California residents. It gives consumers rights such as the ability to access their data and the right to opt-out of data collection, all while prohibiting discrimination against those who exercise their rights. It also imposes fines and allows for consumer lawsuits for violations. Both the GDPR and the CCPA reflect the rising importance of data privacy and help contribute to ensuring that organisations take our data seriously.

How Data Ownership Relates To The Goals Of Social Organisations

A charity as the central source for aid

Data ownership is not just a matter of legal compliance, but a fundamental aspect of responsible data management and good business practices. If an organisation doesn't handle its stakeholders' data prudently and consciously, they run the risk of eroding trust in its organisation — a key pillar for any social organisation. Effectively collecting, storing, and using data,  as well as clearly communicating around data ownership is vital for building trust and transparency for all social organisations in our increasingly data-driven world.

Careless data handling poses security risks, inaccurate or lack of reporting leads to loss of trust, and ineffective use of data can cause organisation inefficiencies. With cyber attacks on the rise, donor contributions and non-profit spending coming under increased scrutiny, and the effectiveness of some social organisations being challenged, let's take a look at how blockchain can be leveraged to create trustworthy and transparent data ownership solutions.

The Role of Blockchain In Data Ownership

Blockchain's transparent, immutable, and decentralised nature make it an ideal candidate for enabling effective data ownership. PolicyBlocks explains that rather than one organisation or entity controlling data, blockchain offers a decentralised solution where many participants in a network can take part. Let's explore how this works.

First, what is a blockchain? A blockchain is a public ledger consisting of bundles (blocks) of transactions linked together to form an immutable "chain" of information. This public ledger is like a public library or mailbox where anyone with the right credentials can access the information in the library.

Each user in the blockchain network is assigned two cryptographic keys that are automatically generated. There is a public key, similar to a public mailbox address. Then, there is a private key that proves a user's identity and allows access to private information, like a key to the mailbox. This gives users more control and influence over their data.

This public ledger is then copied to all participants (computers) on the blockchain network to ensure that there is no centralised point of failure. This decentralised network uses cryptography and something called a consensus mechanism that makes it very, very difficult for bad actors to modify the data in the blockchain (therefore making the ledger 'immutable').

Filecoin and the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) are great examples of how blockchain can enable data ownership via decentralised and standardised storage networks.

Filecoin is an open-source decentralised storage network and marketplace that allows users to rent unused hard drive space. It provides a way to store and retrieve standardised data without the need for a centralised server.

The InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) isn’t just a great name, it's another example of a decentralised storage network that allows users to store and retrieve information without the potential bottlenecks caused by a single, centralised server. This efficiency is made possible because data is stored on many different computers, so all of those computers can feed parts of the data to your computer at once (similar to how a torrent download works).

How Blockchain Provides Transparency, Control, & Accountability

How Blockchain Provides Transparency, Control, & Accountability

You can request a copy of your data from Facebook, with the process and contact person specified in their Terms of Service. You can then expect a hard drive full of deeply personal information spanning your lifetime using Facebook and its related products. Do you remember that conversation you had with your high school crush or those 21st birthday photos? Facebook does.

Where is this data stored? How can you access it? How is it being used? And, who owns it? Let's see how blockchain can help provide technical solutions to these data ownership questions:

Always Open & Accessible

Blockchain's decentralised nature means access to the data is always available regardless if a centralised server goes down or is hacked. Because the blockchain isn't centrally controlled or owned, the information on the blockchain is always accessible.

Transparent & Private

Blockchain's public ledger provides transparency and access whilst maintaining privacy. For those with the right credentials (meaning: those with the access keys), they can always access the data without needing to ask permission.

Ownership & Control

"Your keys, your crypto" is a common saying in the blockchain/crypto world. Blockchain wallets and their associated access keys means you own your data that is stored on a blockchain. You also have the right to grant access to third parties.

Accountability

With vast amounts of data stored on-chain and with accessibility powered by access keys, it is possible for authorised parties to conduct audits and compliance checks without needing to waste time searching for and requesting access to the data.

Real World Examples Of How Blockchain Is Being Used For Data Ownership

From tamper-proof voting systems, verifiable digital IDs, and accessible accounting and medical records, to incentive-based rewards, blockchain is enabling data ownership in a variety of interesting ways.

  • Fraud-free electoral voting systems in the US, Australia, and Russia are being tested.
  • Estonia is trialing a blockchain-based e-voting system that enables both Estonian nationals and non-local e-residents to securely vote in company shareholder meetings.
  • The World Identity Network (WIN) has partnered with the UN to explore blockchain's potential to provide secure and safe forms of identification for the 2 billion people who lack such documentation.
  • Worldcoin is another Digital ID (or proof of personhood) project that uses fancy eye-scanning devices to scan and tokenise a person's iris-based biometric identity, resulting in a verifiable Digital ID stored on the blockchain.
  • Dutch blockchain startup mintBlue has introduced on-chain eInvoicing and identity management to enable efficient validation and verification of financial documents.
  • Privacy-conscious internet browser Brave has launched a cryptocurrency token that rewards users for enabling ads in their browser.
  • IBM's Digital Health Pass enables verifiable data exchange between organisations and their patients, employees, customers, and citizens. IBM's self-sovereign identity approach enables a highly scalable system that empowers individuals by giving them control over their data and the agency to choose how it will be used.

The Future Of Data Ownership

In the digital age, understanding data ownership is increasingly important. We've defined data ownership, explored what it entails and why it’s important. Data ownership is about safeguarding personal data and ensuring organisations handle our data effectively. It is about privacy, control, trust, and, well, ownership.

The regulatory landscape is taking shape and we can see how blockchain can (and is already) helping play a pivotal role in enabling data ownership. As we continue to create zettabytes of data, we can expect to see more of that data ending up on-chain — ultimately ensuring we have more control, transparency, and accountability in how organisations handle our data.