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Is Your Data About Yourself Too Complex for You to Manage?

That’s the argument human data collectors (HDCs) make for why they should be allowed to collect and own your data

Veteran software developer David A. Kruger offered some thoughts on computer security recently at Expensivity and we appreciate the opportunity to republish them here as a series. On Tuesday, we looked at how the current system punishes small businesses for data breaches that they could not have prevented. Today, we look at the claim that human data collectors should own your data because it is too complex for you to manage.

The Easy Button

The most common objection to data ownership is that self-management of owned data is overly complex. That view is based on the complexity of so-called “privacy controls” offered by big tech HDCs, controls which have every appearance of being deliberately obtuse. As a software developer and designer, an industrial safety controls designer, and an IT system administrator, I am acutely aware that privacy controls could be greatly simplified, but they aren’t. Instead, they are hard to find, frequently change locations, get renamed, are vaguely defined, and provide no feedback to verify they are working. That’s either evidence of astonishingly poor design or an intent to convince users that managing their privacy just isn’t worth it. I’m going with the latter.

David Kruger

In fiduciary relationships, the burden of control complexity falls on the fiduciary, not the customer. It is the fiduciary’s duty to reduce complexity because it decreases the chances the customer can harm themselves when using the fiduciary’s product or service. If you open a bank or investment account, there is no expectation that you, the customer, are responsible for logging in to the fiduciary’s software as a system administrator and doing all the complex configurations required for your account, is there? Of course, not.

As stated earlier with respect to controllable data, “When data is shared with a trusted third party, pre-agreed intended use controls can be imported from the third party and applied to the user’s data.” That technological capability, in conjunction with fiduciary duty, puts the onus of managing complex controls on the fiduciary, not the customer. It’s part of the fiduciary’s duty to disclose in plain language how shared data entrusted to them will be used. That’s readily accomplished with an online portal with a simple user interface that, if appropriate, enables usage to be modified or revoked in accordance with contract terms—the same capability we have now with our banking and investment accounts. From a design standpoint, there is no reason for owned data shared with a fiduciary to be difficult to control.

Clear As Glass

In fiduciary relationships, the ability to inspect what the fiduciary is doing with the assets they are entrusted with is the norm. It has been asserted by some HDCs that such an inspection of a user’s data isn’t possible ‘because the data isn’t organized that way.’ That’s not credible.

When HDCs collect raw human data for their own purposes, say for targeting ads, it has knowledge of the user that is so granular that it can place ads selected for the specific user, count their ad clicks and views, monitor their movement about the page to gauge attention, store that information and recall it for future trend analysis, and invoice the advertiser for each ad seen or clicked. Given that level of capability and the amount of stored detail held for each individual user, HDC assertions they don’t have the technical wherewithal to disclose the sources, holdings, and uses of information related to a specific user is ludicrous.  Likewise, those HDCs who collect human data for resale must have detailed information about the nature of the data they have collected and who they collected it from in order to value it and invoice the buyer. It’s not credible to assert they can’t disclose the sources, content of the information collected, and who they sold it to.

The problem isn’t that HDCs can’t produce and disclose the data source, content, and usage information for each user, it’s that they desperately don’t want to. Why? Because if their users see the volume and detail of the information HDCs hold on them and how they are using it, they would likely be stunned, horrified, and angry—and demand that it stops.

There’s A New Sheriff in Town

Given what we’ve covered, to reach the goals that deterrence-based policy has not achieved, policymakers should consider the following:

  1. Apply fiduciary law to software makers, otherwise they will continue to have no compelling reason to think about, much less do anything about the harms their software is causing.
  2. Declare that raw human data is the property of the individual whose digital activities generate it, not the property of the HDCs that collect it. Controllable data makes this more than a legal fiction because it makes actual and constructive possession of personal data possible, provable, auditable, and when shared under contract, objectively enforceable.
  3. With respect to human data collection:
    • If the purpose of software can be fulfilled by consuming controllable attribute-only data, the collection of identifiable human data should not be permitted.
    • If the purpose of software can only be fulfilled by the collection of identifiable human data, that data must be jointly controllable by the person that produced it and the receiving entity in a manner satisfactory to both.
  4. With respect to disclosure:
    • Require that organizations holding identifiable human data disclose to each user the sources of their data, the content currently held, and how their data is used. A well-organized online portal would suffice.
    • To prevent user manipulation, require that organizations holding identifiable human data
      • Provide users a plain language explanation of any algorithmic processing of their data.
      • Allow regulators to inspect the algorithms that consume that data and the data derived from it.
  5. With respect to data deletion:
    • HDCs who no longer have a legitimate purpose for holding identifiable human data should make a copy in an organized format available to users upon request.
    • If an HDC no longer has a legitimate purpose for holding a user’s identifiable human data, users should be granted the right to order its permanent deletion.

Next: How software makers will push back against reforms

Here are the first eleven segments in the series:

The true cause of cybersecurity failure and how to fix it Hint: The cause and fix are not what you think. David A. Kruger, a member of the Forbes Technology Council, says it’s getting worse: We’re in a hole so stop digging! Get back to root cause analysis.

What’s wrong with cybersecurity technology? Know your enemy: The target isn’t networks, computers, or users; they are pathways to the target —gaining control of data. The challenge: If a cyberdefender scores 1,000,000 and a cyberattacker scores 1, the cyberattacker wins, David Kruger points out.

Ingredients that cybersecurity needs to actually work Software makers continue to produce open data as if we were still living in the 50s, and the Internet had never been invented. Forbes Council’s David Kruger says, the goal should be safety (preventing harm) rather than, as so often now, security (reacting to hacks with new defenses).

Cybersecurity: Put a lid on the risks. We already own the lid. Security specialist David Kruger says, data must be contained when it is in storage and transit and controlled when it is in use. Cyberattackers are not the problem; sloppy methods are. We must solve the problem we created one piece of data or software at a time.

The sweet science of agile software development Effective security, as opposed to partial security, increases costs in the short run but decreases them in the long run. Software veteran: Getting makers to change their priorities to safer products safe rather than the next cool new feature will by no means be easy.

Computer safety expert: Start helping ruin cybercriminals’ lives. Okay, their businesses. Unfortunately, part of the problem is the design of programs, written with the best of intentions… First, we must confront the fact that software makers are not often held responsible for the built-in flaws of their systems.

The cybercriminal isn’t necessarily who you think… Chances are, the “human data collector” is just someone who works for a company that makes money collecting data about you. Did you know that his bosses have paid gazillions in fines for what he and his fellows do? Let’s learn more about what they are up to.

Sometimes, money really is the explanation. Today’s internet is a concentration of power, in terms of information, never before seen in history. The HDCs (human data collectors) treat us as guinea pigs in a thoroughly unethical experiment designed to learn how to manipulate the user most effectively.

How search engine results can be distorted Search providers such as Google are able to increase their ad revenues by distorting the search results delivered to users. Human data collectors (HDCs) have been able to evade responsibility for the preventable harms they cause by blame shifting and transferring risk to users.

How online human data collectors get free from responsibility Cybersecurity expert David A. Kruger talks about the Brave Old World in which you have much less power than Big Tech does. For Big Tech, government fines and other censures are merely a cost of doing business, which makes reform difficult at best.


Cybersecurity: Why a poke in the eye does not work. The current system punishes small businesses for data breaches they could not have prevented. Computer security expert David Kruger says the current system makes as much sense as fining the hit and run victim for not jumping out of the way.

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Is Your Data About Yourself Too Complex for You to Manage?