WHY WE (AS CONSUMERS) ALL NEED TO UNDERSTAND, VALUE, AND PROTECT OUR PERSONAL INFORMATION AND DIGITAL ASSETS

I was in a business meeting at a mall recently (which is about the only reason I would go to a mall) and I stopped by a store on the way out to buy a small item.  I pulled out a $20 bill to pay for it and the young person behind the counter looked at it like it was something she had never seen before and then as she was taking it, she looked at her computer screen and started to ask me for information, starting with my e mail address.   I politely asked her if I would get a discount if I gave her my personal information that her computer was telling her to ask me for.  She said no.  Then I asked her if I would be allowed to purchase the item even if I declined to give her my personal information.   She then chuckled and smiled and said yes and got my point and I was out the door without giving her my name, rank, and serial number.  This is the mentality I believe all consumers should have whether dealing with a retail outlet or a professional advisor or anyone else.  Be polite, give the information you need for the service or product you need, but don’t give out more than is required unless you are truly being paid fairly for what you are sharing with any business or salesperson.

I tell this story because it is the story of big business/corporate America conning the consuming public out of assets that belong to us.  Specifically, retail stores, credit card companies, social media companies, creators of Apps and others have been systematically and often deceptively getting us (ie the consuming public) to give them our personal information in exchange for very little and sometimes nothing.   Then, the same companies have directly or indirectly made a fortune selling or using your personal information.   And, when your personal information that they have gathered is misused by them or those they sell it to, or it is stolen through a data breach, they do virtually nothing to compensate you.

Should our concern for privacy protection all matter?  I believe, in a decade, we will look back on what I just described above and conclude that corporate America effectively conned Americans out of billions of dollars of assets (personal information in digital form) for virtually no compensation while simultaneously allowing cyber criminals to steal your information from them without compensating you for their negligence in allowing that to occur.  As a result, we believe you should immediately start treating you and, more importantly your children’s and grandchildren’s personal information and digital assets as something that is of significant value and should not be loaned out to any corporation who casually asks for it so that they can profit from it.

If you agree with me, then the next question is to better define what we are talking about protecting.  In my mind, what I am talking about protecting, is you and your families “Digital Assets” and “Personal Data”.  And, as with much in the cutting edge of the technology world, you need to define terms before discussing and advising on them.  

The term “Digital Asset” is an evolving term, but it typically refers to what we think of as information that exists on a computer (i.e. assets that exist in a binary format); and is also that is what I refer to as proprietary (i.e. comes with a right to use).   Although as a technical matter, your “Personal Information” AKA Personally Identifiable Information” or “PII” AKA “personal data” that directly or indirectly identifies you (e.g. Social Security number, Passport number, Driver’s License number, or other information that can be used to identify you) are separate from your “Digital Assets”,  I recommend to clients that we conceptually think of them as one group of assets that we should protect comprehensively.   And, for consumer protection purposes, I define both digital assets/personal information broadly to include encrypted/pseudonymized information, collections of things such as IP addresses/cookies/device IDs/location data/online identifiers/identification numbers or names or passwords/genetic or biometric data, and any other information that can be used relating to your physical, physiological, mental, economic, cultural, or social identity.