How you can use your private data for your own benefit

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Every time we use an app on our smartphone or do an online search, a company somewhere is collecting that data and using it, in combination with the data of a million other users. The companies learn about how we use their apps, where we are located and our ages and interests.

In some ways, this depth of knowledge can be frightening. What are companies doing with that information? How can we be sure it has a benign function and that it is being used for our benefit? Andreas Weigend, director at the Social Data Lab and former chief scientist at Amazon.com Inc., has written a new book called Data for the People that encourages individuals to take control of their own personal data and offers ways to make data work for everyone.

Weigend talked with Jeff Frick, cohost of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile live streaming studio, at a Data Privacy Day event held Thursday by the National Cyber Security Alliance at the San Francisco headquarters of Twitter Inc., a sponsor of the event. Data Privacy Day is an annual celebration to recognize the Jan. 28, 1981, signing of Convention 108, the first legally binding international treaty concerning privacy and data protection.

Weigend and Frick discussed how social data is revolutionizing the world and how it can be used to benefit and enrich our daily lives. This is the last of a series of interviews with top executives and thought leaders at the event.

The social data revolution

Weigend explained that social data is the data people create and share, often without quite realizing it. “People now share on Facebook information that the KGB couldn’t have gotten out of them under torture,” he said.

This social data-based information has changed the world drastically in the past two decades, Weigend said. For example, when consumers buy something today, they primarily buy them based on social data; they read reviews or listen to what their friends are saying. They are relying far less on advertising or information from a marketing department.

Many consumers also use biometric readers, such as Fitbit, to track how they are sleeping and to make sure that they are getting enough exercise. These useful feedback loops can change behavior for the better. On the other hand, companies can use those same readers to track whether employees are getting enough exercise, and health insurance companies can use that data to decide how much to charge for insurance. For instance, if individuals get lots of exercise and eat well, that betters health. But sitting on the couch all the time and eating poorly could result in higher insurance rates.

How can data benefit us?

So the key question, according to Weigend, is this: What data do consumers have to give up to get something back that’s worthwhile to them?

He gave of the example of using Google Maps to get directions to the Privacy Day event; many other people are using Google Maps to get to this same location at the same time. Therefore, if Google wanted to, it could figure out quickly that something interesting is happening at the location. This information could then be used to benefit the attendees; Google could potentially notify Uber of an event at this location and have cars ready for anyone who needed them to get home, Weigend explained.

Even more useful, how can our information be used to help us, not just companies, make better decisions? Data is the new oil, Weigend said, so it needs to be refined to have value. When consumers share their data with a company, they aren’t truly giving up their data. What companies are doing is taking data, combining it with the information of potentially millions of other users, and then giving the information back in a “refined” form. That is when individuals can use the data to benefit themselves.

Here’s the complete video interview with Weigend. You can watch the rest of theCUBE’s coverage of the event here.

Photo by SiliconANGLE