Data Portability vs. Privacy

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There is a lot of buzz of late regarding Robert Scoble getting knocked off of Facebook as he was testing out Plaxo and, in the process, scraping data from Facebook. The debate that has primarily raged has been around who “owns” our data when we load it into a social media site. I’m pretty sure that the Terms of Use we all blithely accept spell that out fairly clearly. I’m also pretty sure that legalese is largely irrelevant when it comes to the court of public opininion, as Facebook seems to continually rediscover!

Debbie Weil had an interesting take on the situation in her post: The controversial issue of ”data portability” (or what we used to call “privacy”). She makes the point that, “With so many of us living so much of our lives online we are trusting both that our ‘data’ won’t be misused and that it won’t disappear.” We don’t often enough recognize that data portability and privacy, if not directly in conflict, apply pressure in two different directions. Chris Brogan, Jeremiah Owyang, and many, many others have touched on the subject. In Brogan’s case, and in many of the comments on Twitter, the emphasis is on the nuisance factor of having to re-enter the same information in multiple places. Generally, there is some nod to “privacy” — “it needs to be secure, private, with configurable access permissions” — but that gets thrown in almost as an afterthought. On the other hand, it only takes one or two examples of some form of identity theft to give people pause about making their data truly portable. As a matter of fact, an on-going discussion in the world of web analytics is, “How much detail can we — and should we — track and keep on visitors to our sites?” And, when governments get involved, the emphasis is virtually always on ensuring privacy rather than on improving efficiency (in the U.S., HIPAA and CAN-SPAM come to mind immediately).

This is a truly thorny issue, and it comes down to trying to accurately manage personal preferences across multiple interrelated/interconnected systems. On one end of the spectrum, the privacy paranoid person resists sharing any true information whatsoever, and he can aggressively tell sites not to share his information in any way whatsoever — even with him! This poor soul is almost definitely going to give himself high blood pressure, and the shorter life he is going to live is going to be inefficiently lived as he continually puts up barriers that he has to repeatedly climb over. On the other extreme is the person who will openly share even his bank account details because he doesn’t believe it will ever bite him in the ass (we can label this archetype Jeremy Clarkson).

The reality is that 99% of us live somewhere in between these two extremes. Most of us believe that where we have placed ourselves on this spectrum is the obviously logical place to be. And most of us are uncomfortable shifting even slightly from our current position towards either end of that spectrum.

The person who has a finite number of cell phone minutes each month on herplan may fiercely guard that number while freely sharing her home number. Another person may have unlimited minutes and no issues with screening her cell phone calls as they arrive, so may prefer that number as her primary, most public contact channel.

This means any “solution” will have to be highly configurable. Which, sadly, means that it may be cumbersome to manage. And may struggle to get adopted. I’ll continue to keep my fingers crossed that OpenID, The Todeka Project, or some other approach can allow us to personalize our point on the privacy/portability spectrum.

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