How Apple could turn personal data into a gold mine for the masses [Opinion]

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Apple is the best on privacy, but it's still not close to what we need.
Apple is the best on privacy, but it's still not close to what we need.
Photo: Ash Edmonds/Unsplash

Apple should be building a data marketplace for its users, not raising fears about privacy. Privacy is about preventing the leakage of personal data and does nothing about the ownership and monetization of that data.

Individuals should be getting paid for their data directly, not the companies that collect that data. And that should be the focus of Apple’s efforts.

Apple CEO Tim Cook called the current state of online privacy a “crisis” in a recent interview with ABC News. And I agree. But privacy would naturally result from the creation of tools that allow you to own your data. Trying to prevent the data from getting out in the first place doesn’t frame the problem as what it is: theft.

A personal data marketplace

Apple is in a unique position to change the power dynamic with our data. Since its business doesn’t revolve around selling personal data, it’s created an infrastructure where that precious commodity mostly remains under a user’s control. That’s very different from the operations of Google or Facebook, which would prefer you have less control so they can decide the best data to collect and sell.

If we are to move to a model where users are able to own and sell their own data, one of the key pieces of software that needs to be built is a data marketplace. We don’t know the real value of our data now because there’s nowhere to sell it on an open market.

Such a marketplace won’t be easy to build, but Apple possesses some huge advantages:

  • Much of the data you’d want to sell as a user is already collected and stored safely by Apple products.
  • The company gained experience with large-scale marketplaces with the App Store.
  • It’s already dipped a toe in this problem through navigating HealthKit data and products.
  • It has virtually unlimited resources.

There are a lot of problems to be figured out in such a marketplace: licensing, dispute resolution, validation, contracts, etc. Apple would need all its resources to pull it off. But the payoff is an e-commerce platform that rivals or surpasses Amazon, without any of the shipping overhead.

But … why?

The benefits to users would be something resembling a universal basic income. A user creates valuable data on a daily basis, just by going about their lives, and buyers can then use it for a fee. That’s what happens now, but the money goes to a data monopoly like Google instead of to users’ pockets.

It’s true that currently each user’s cut of these data sales is too small to make much of a difference on a personal level. But that’s because there’s not an open market. Google sells to certain buyers and Facebook sells to certain buyers. If buyers had to come to you for your data, and could bundle it with thousands of other people’s information, several times a day, the money could add up to a significant source of income.

Also, having an open platform would invite new kinds of buyers with different use cases and value estimations. Perhaps you could license your genome to a pharmaceuticals company for millions of dollars. Or help find the best bike route in your town just by commuting to work.

The status quo is that people give away valuable data to use tools that manipulate them into giving up more data. On the principle of fairness, it makes no sense. And eventually there will be a revolt if we don’t get a personal data marketplace.

Apple should get out ahead of this wave of demand and put its money where its mouth is on privacy and user data.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Tools We Need, a blog about how and why to own your personal data.