All in the name of science – firms using data for research, but should users have control

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Published: July 27, 2020 3:00 AM

Google and Amazon may have to share more data than they would like to, otherwise, the government would be breathing down their necks.

Apple, repeatedly, harped on the fact that privacy was an essential area of focus for the company, and would not be breached in pursuit of gains.Apple, repeatedly, harped on the fact that privacy was an essential area of focus for the company, and would not be breached in pursuit of gains.

Last year, while announcing a new series of Apple Watch, Tim Cook was careful not to dawdle on how data would be collected and how it would be shared. In fact, in a brilliant strategy, it was time and again re-emphasised that the data collection was in the interest of research. Of course, Apple being Apple did mention that data would be anonymised and collected only after user consent. But then who would not consent to science.

This year’s online event was no different. Apple, repeatedly, harped on the fact that privacy was an essential area of focus for the company, and would not be breached in pursuit of gains. Apple is not the only company to regurgitate on privacy, TikTok, after accusations of handing consumer data to the Chinese government is looking at shifting headquarters.

More recent, Garmin announced a partnership with PhysioQ to do Covid research. Garmin watches will collect information on SpO2 and other parameters and relay them to PhysioQ, which would receive anonymised information. A day after the announcement, Garmin was hacked, and we still don’t know if there has been a data breach. It is also not clear if one could opt-out of the study. But then again it supports science, so why would anyone opt-out. They’d be selfish to.

Data collection for health tech firms is easy. Science is often evoked in the name of data collection. And, if nothing else works companies block out a few essential services and the consumer is back on track on sharing. For social media entities and other services, data collection is a bit difficult. Science is the last thing Facebook or Instagram can talk about. Howver, they can still block users out. But as privacy becomes important and people take notice of the billions being made using their data, collection and sharing may not be so easy.

India is one of the countries which is working towards making data a commodity. This month, the Kris Gopalkrishna committee came out with the eagerly awaited draft non-personal data protection bill. Among the many highlights, the critical point was the clause about user consent on data sharing and setting up of a data market. If India is successful in this endeavour, it will be one of the first attempts at formalising data flow.

But what does it mean for the consumers? Google and Amazon may have to share more data than they would like to, otherwise, the government would be breathing down their necks. However, consumers may not benefit any time soon. The details on whether companies can refuse service if a consumer does not share her data are not clear. If it can, then we are back to square one.

It is only a matter of time, though, before consumers start gaining. Once a market is in place, price discovery would reveal how much data points are worth and before companies find the government breathing down their necks again, they will start shelling out for collection for data. But conversely, this would also mean they would start charging for services. So, if you do not wish to share, Gmail would not be free. But if you do, then payment is in the form of data they collate.
The idea may seem utopian at present, but the world is moving towards it. One of the crucial chapters in economic thinking is the study of surplus-value. Marx’s entire work was predicated upon the study of surplus value in the capitalist system and the exploitation of labour.

In a digital economy, it is difficult to determine what surplus-value would be. After all, the only commmodity of value that companies are generating is data. Data relations, and therefore capitalist relations are different. But ultimately it all comes down to one question.

Whose data is it anyway?

ishaan.gera@expressindia.com

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