Flatter Data

I was watching The Verge summary of The Selfish Ledger, Google X’s thought experiment on what your personal data could do in the future. I started to think about Flatland.

Flatland is a book by Edwin A Abbott about dimensions. In the book, A Square lives in a 2D world, with other 2D shapes, and tries to comprehend the universe when 3D shapes start turning up, but A Square can only comprehend them in slices or shadows/projections.

See this video by Carl Sagan if you want to know more.

The personal data organisations see of us is like the circles projected in Flatland. Google sees the videos I like and the technologies I search for help on. HMRC sees my income, savings, and charitable giving. NHS sees my health.

Companies make decisions on this data, and, like the flatlanders, generalise from the pink circles they see. Sometimes that accurately reflects the brown circles, oftentimes, not. Sometimes what looks like 2 circles is a pair of legs, and what looks like one circle is actually a group hug.

I don’t want companies to disambiguate that. I endorse the spirit of GDPR, that data should only be given up in informed consent (absent the usual rights exemptions for criminals who who violate the rights of others.)

For those of us who work in tech, we need to embrace the ambiguity, and help users and other data subjects understand how they have been categorised. Let them embrace anonymity via randomisation, such as number variance data masking.

You never own someone else’s data, you merely look after it for as long as they let you. It’s not about privacy. It’s not about data. It’s about trust. It’s about ethics.

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