Ready for What’s Next? Envision a Future Where Your Personal Information Is Digital Currency


401(K) 2013/Flickr

Have you heard the credit card commercial that asks, “what’s in your wallet?” Before long, the answer is going to be “you.”

As our digital footprint grows, I see personal information becoming a form of digital currency – something that an individual person owns, controls and uses in exchange for “personalized” goods and services.

An estimated 90 percent of American adults have a cell phone; 87 percent use the internet and about 74 percent of those users participate in social media, according to the Pew Research Internet Project.

Across the globe today, companies make money by selling or sharing the digital data left behind by these users. I see a future where the model is flipped – a world where consumers are in control of their own data and approve its release and use for personal benefits or for social good.

What data are we talking about? Take a minute to think about your online accounts and activities. You will be surprised at the length of the list: email; social media; web history; services such as television cable, electric power, cell phones; online banking; credit cards; apps such as game sites and coupons; even location data from your cell phone and GPS device. In addition to all that, a lot of information is preserved on private data servers, such as electronic health records.

Today, much of this digital information is not under your control. For example, you “trade” information with an email provider to create an email account. But it’s hard to know how that service provider will, in turn, use your information. Once you provide the data points, they are out of your hands. In the future, I see consumers having a better understanding of how information is collected, who accesses it and what it’s used for. I also think they will have a lot more say in how it is used.

Let’s say I want to work with my physician on a family healthcare plan. In addition to my family’s healthcare records, technology will make it possible for us to share lifestyle information such as what items we bought while grocery shopping during the past month; our exercise routine; what places we visited and what websites we surfed. All of this information will help the doctor make more precise recommendations about our family’s health and wellness. We also could opt to share the data (after being anonymized) to help the Center for Disease Control and Prevention track and control epidemics.

How will this happen? I envision a digital footprint “wallet” that tracks and controls my data, recommending what, when, and how it can be used to benefit me, my friends and family, or society. For example, let’s say I want to book a family vacation to an exotic place, and need help making arrangements. My digital assistant may suggest I trade three months’ worth of my Facebook data for the travel booking services. It can also tell the travel agent my preferences, so the trip is customized.

Or, perhaps my digital assistant will ask me if I want to share my shopping history with a store to get recommendations from their fall line (no, I do not) or share my water bill history with a drought prevention group looking to understand usage patterns (yes, I do).

There are many technological and psychological factors we have to overcome before this approach becomes possible. User privacy, data security and consumer education are three areas I see advancing quickly. It could be that the digital wallet leads to digital pickpockets, as well.

Tong Sun leads the Scalable Data Analytics Research Lab at Xerox’s PARC.

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