The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has suggested that users should be the owners of their personal data and that companies would be "mere custodians" without any primary rights over this data. This appears to be an important step in the path towards establishing a strong data privacy regime in India.
On the other side, there is Aadhaar, the project at the centre of a nationwide debate on privacy and data security. Nandan Nilekani, the architect of Aadhaar, had pitched the idea that Indians should be able to monetise their own data to get better healthcare and easier loans.
These two suggestions, when seen in conjunction, throws up interesting possibilities of a future in which data is a valuable asset that can be traded as a commodity in exchange for goods and services. Add blockchain, the latest tech buzzword, to this mix and you get a tantalising concoction.
While trading in personal data predates the internet, it got a big boost from the time when the internet took the first byte out of the first advertising dollar.
Money, Money, Money!
User data is now big business. Many companies bought and sold are valued based on the amount and depth of user data that they can bring to the table. We, the users, however, do not get to benefit from any of this.
In the current scheme of things, all the user gets in exchange of his/her personal data and the willingness to be exposed to incessant advertising are some services, which are ostensibly of much lesser value than what the user hands over to the companies.
In the absence of European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) like law, Indian users have very little say in all of this. But the tables can soon be turned.
If by way of legislation, along with effective implementation, users are indeed made the masters of their own data, then as owners they should also be able to sell it or maybe even rent it out.
Unlike other tangible assets, personal data can be sold over and over again to different sets of buyers or borrowers, potentially adding an ever-growing revenue stream.
The value of a user's data will also be dependent on the user's profile and lifestyle. Therefore there won't be any standard rates. Also, market forces will control the demand side and also the supply side of it, quite like any other commodity leading to price fluctuations.
A Data Exchange, Anyone?
The very model of existing user data exchanges will be forced to change and to survive in the new regime, they will have to put the user at the centre of it all.
When users will get to know the real value of their personal data, they will be far less likely to give it away for next to nothing to the companies that are thriving in the personal data economy.
Individual data, or sets of it, could become a speculative trade in itself. Some, that over time get identified as bellwether, are likely to be paid a high premium. In that data-enriched future, your personal data could actually make you rich.
All this will make personal data an invaluable asset and this will also increase the risk of data theft. This can be somewhat mitigated by the use of technologies such as blockchain.Nilekani said that India could be the first country to have a data empowerment infrastructure for its people. India could, very well, also be the first country where people get enriched by data. Literally.