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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Renz

The Currency of Data - How humans can regain control over their data and turn it into a currency

Updated: Jan 28, 2020

Data is now the most valuable asset on the planet. It is more valuable than oil. The platform monopolies of the web suck up our personal data for their own profit. Based on the promise of “free” Internet services a handful of companies have turned us into the product and exploited our data and attention. Along with our data, these platforms have created high security prisons to entrap and enslave us. Our privacy and individual freedom is violated. Companies have created detailed profiles on each and every one of us, not only predict, but to shape our actions. Our thinking and behavior is digitally engineered and manipulated. Our societies are divided and our democracies at risk. How do we get out of this mess?

There were dark days when we had slavery, child labor and rivers polluted enough so that they would literally catch fire. The Cuyahoga River fire (see photo) more than 50 years ago 'sparked' US environmental action including the creation of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The environmental disasters encroached on us slowly and it took time for policy makers, industry and citizens alike to fix the problem.

The creation of the EPA and environmental regulations lead to emission standards and innovations that triggered development of environmentally friendly technologies.

Today, we have lost control over our digital identities and our data. Unlike burning rivers, the problem is not quite as a obvious and solutions are more challenging. But once you are directly impacted by identity theft, this entire problems shift from being quite abstract to being very real. I am – like 147 million other US residents - impacted by the Equifax hack.

How did we get into this mess?

The era of ‘surveillance capitalism’ really began in 1968. Despite public protests, credit agencies like Equifax started to link a variety of data about consumers with their government issued Social Security Number (SSN). If you want to participate in the US financial system, there is no way to opt out. The 2017 Equifax hack compromised the personal data of half the US population and will impact me throughout my life and possibly even beyond my death. Equifax says that data of their “customers” was compromised, but I was never a customer and have never knowingly done business with Equifax. What is worse, the burden for making sure my data is not abused is on me. So, companies have made money with my data, but they are not accountable for protecting it. 

In a world of ‘free’ Internet services, you have become the product. What do you own? 

You own nothing.

Now, with the advent of the “free” advertising led Internet and mobile computing, the sophistication and invasiveness of ‘surveillance capitalism’ has now reached a level that was unimaginable back in 1968. Internet services companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have become the most valuable and most powerful companies in the world by taking your data and turning you into a product. What do you own? You own nothing. You gave up the rights to your data and privacy by accepting the terms of use. We have become the product and Facebook and Google are selling our attention. 

The case of Equifax and the platform monopolies makes one thing very clear. We as humans must own our data. I call this Self-Sovereign Data. 

What is Self-Sovereign Data?

Imagine a new world where data is owned and controlled by the people who create and embody it. That is self-sovereign data. We as humans must have ownership and control over our identity and our data. It must be an irrevocable human right. 

Does your digital footprint make you nervous? 

If we rely on a few companies to control all our data and to algorithmically feed us only the information deemed most relevant for us, we are staring down the barrel and a few monopolists have their finger on the trigger. In a free society, we need to give humans a choice on how they want to participate in the digital world. The world of on-line marketing has been turned into a manipulative scam that is not healthy. Not healthy for us as humans. Not healthy for our society. Not healthy for our democracy and not healthy for our economies. 

Does your digital footprint make you nervous? That is because you don’t know what data about you is out there and how this data is being used. Today, you are concerned about the traces you leave behind because somebody could exploit and use it against us. 

Imagine a new world where you own and control your data. In the world I envision, you are no longer nervous about your digital footprint. You understand your digital footprint as a valuable asset. 

In the future, we will understand personal data as a new asset class.

Every piece of data about you, like the websites you visit, what you search for, the heart rate that your smart watch collects and how you drive your car is valuable data that should automatically be fed into your own personal data vault. Your data vault automatically collects data from the devices and services you use through APIs and puts it in a secure distributed file storage system to create an ever more valuable data set that belongs to you. And only you have the key to that vault. 

How can we create value from personal data? 

Data is a new asset class. Your data vault stores all of the data about you. It is securing your data as a valuable asset. 

Your data could be grouped across your different personas, like your financial data, your health data, your mobility data and so forth. Now imagine we would aggregate select data into individual data pods, secure data containers that can be described with meta data. These data pods would hold specific data relevant for a certain use case. 

We need to get away from a model where you have to accept one-sided terms and conditions as part of which you give “consent” to giving away the rights to your data. And just because you want to share a photo you need to grant access to all the photos on your phone. With data pods you could create secure data containers and grant access to certain data to a specific business partner, for a specific use case and for a limited time period. Through smart contracts your data becomes programmable and only the data needed for a specific use case is shared for as long as it is needed. 

You can think of such data pods as a tangible asset that you can own, trade and program. 

How would you monetize a data pod? 

The predominant business model in the World Wide Web today is advertising-based, “free” services. We give our data in exchange for free services and that is a problem. 

Today, data is a currency we can't spend.

Facebook, Google and others essentially eliminate the market mechanism to establish a price for data. They hijack our data, mine it and sell our attention in the form of targeted 1:1 advertising to businesses. So, not only don’t we have control over our data. It has also become a currency we can’t spend.  

We need to think about data as a fungible asset with a market price, just like a barrel of oil. And for that we need a level of standardization on how we describe and a market mechanism to price and trade data. Consumers should be able to offer their data. Brands can discover your data using meta data and make offers to access individual data pods in exchange for tokens. 

Data pods not only help you regain control over your data as a valuable asset. It also creates a new unit of measure and a token to turn our data into a fungible currency. The monetization of data is an important aspect to create a data economy that benefits all. But making money from our data is only one aspect. We can use our data to train our personal AI. Its only purpose it to serve us. Or we can make our data available to researchers or institutions to improve the state of the world in the interest of greater good. Now we all benefit from our personal data. Now we can all win in the future data economy. 

We all win in a future of self-sovereign data. 

(Well, apart from a handful of platform monopolies).

What is more, most companies will also win in this model. By embracing self-sovereign data, corporations can create friction for platform monopolies whose business model is based on collecting user data. At the same time, trusted companies and brands can suddenly get access to personal data that was beyond their reach to become more relevant for consumers and drive engagement. In addition to that, regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) require companies to obtain consent from users to process their data. With data pods and smart contracts, brands get verifiable proof that a consumer provided that consent. 

It sounds counterintuitive at first, but if you think about it more you realize that by giving the consumer control over data, (almost) everybody wins. With the exception of the platforms monopolies that hijack and hoard our data. A few years ago Google said that privacy was dead. Today Mark Zuckerberg says that “The Future is Private”.

However a future where consumers own and control their data is completely at odds with the business models of these companies. Whenever you want to review and personalize privacy settings you see just how complicated they make it in the hope that you will simply give up. 

This ongoing debate is shifting the way we as a society think about data and privacy. In a few years we will look back at surveillance capitalism the same way we look at burning rivers. We look back at platform monopolies like discarded cars on a river bank.

If we get the three pieces of the puzzle right – regulation, social ethics around the use of data and new technologies – we will see a movement develop that will change the world for the better. And in fact, most corporations should also become passionate advocates of such a model. Self-sovereign data should be a human right. Which world would you rather live in?

Please help us create the movement. Contact us at

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