In an opinion column at the New York Times, University of Chicago business professor Richard H. Thaler discusses the data collected on individuals by companies and says that people have the right to know what’s in their profiles.
“NO one knows what I like better than I do.” This statement may seem self-evident, but the revolution in information technology has created a growing list of exceptions. Your grocery store knows what you like to eat and can probably make educated guesses about other foods you might enjoy. Your wireless carrier knows whom you call, and your phone may know where you’ve been. And your search engine can finish many of your thoughts before you are even done typing them. […]
The collection and dissemination of this information raises a host of privacy issues, of course, and the bipartisan team of Senators John Kerry and John McCain has proposed what it is calling the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights to deal with many of them. Protecting our privacy is important, but the senators’ approach doesn’t tackle a broader issue: It doesn’t include the right to access data about ourselves. Not only should our data be secure; it should also be available for us to use for our own purposes. After all, it is our data.
Here is a guiding principle: If a business collects data on consumers electronically, it should provide them with a version of that data that is easy to download and export to another Web site. Think of it this way: you have lent the company your data, and you’d like a copy for your own use.
This month in Britain, the government announced an initiative along these lines called “mydata.” (I was an adviser on this project.) Although British law already requires companies to provide consumers with usage information, this program is aimed at providing the data in a computer-friendly way. The government is working with several leading banks, credit card issuers, mobile calling providers and retailers to get things started. […]
Before businesses complain about how hard it would be to comply with such a regulation, they should take a look at the federal government’s Blue Button initiative. This protocol is already providing a secure way for veterans and Medicare beneficiaries to share their medical history with health care providers they trust. (The name “Blue Button” refers to an icon that users click to get the data.) […]
If the government can manage to collect and release personal information in a secure and useful way, so can private companies, which will empower consumers to become better shoppers. […]
The ability of businesses to monitor our behavior is already a fact of life, and it isn’t going away. Of course we must protect our privacy rights. But if we’re smart, we’ll also use the data that is being collected to improve our own lives.