Who is the real Owner of your Data?

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Photo by Benjamin Lehman on Unsplash

Photo by Benjamin Lehman on Unsplash

I began writing the title of this article on February 24, 2022. Then, it remained incomplete, parked in a corner of my notes. Until a few days ago, when, talking with colleagues, I posed this question, finding them interested.

Today, I read this news: Ring video doorbell customers angry at 43% price hike (BBC News). Meaning soon, Ring users will have to pay much more to use the company's "cloud" services.

Last week, a client informed me they would be moving their e-commerce (working, successful, efficient, and stable) from Magento to Shopify. I jumped in my seat: "And why?" "Because this way we don't have to depend on developers and hosting but have everything ours, just consultants on how to manage it." It makes no difference to me, but I asked them: "Ours? Currently, the server is yours (physical host lease on an important provider), the database is yours, the backups are on your disks in your data center. In such a standard that allows restoration in a few minutes, on any hardware. Once everything is migrated to Shopify, who is the real owner of your data?" Their answer: "But it's us, it's our e-commerce!" It took me about half an hour to explain to them that no, nothing is theirs. They will use another's platform, on another's servers, with data stored in a proprietary format (of another, accessible only to another) and at prices that, from time to time, others will decide. But, unfortunately, salespeople are more skilled than technicians, and by now, they are convinced. I am sure they will regret it, sooner or later, but it will be too late.

Today's business thrives on data. Data is the only thing that matters to them. Our smartphones, our operating systems (not open-source) are effectively tools useful to the companies that produce them to collect data on us and sell it.

Reflecting on how we arrived at this point, we cannot ignore the technological evolution of the last decades. At the dawn of the digital age, data were contained within the physical borders of our hard disks, almost as if they were locked in a home safe. Today, however, we live in the era of the cloud, where our data float in a digital limbo, often beyond our direct reach. This transformation has not only been technological but also cultural, pushing us towards an economy of convenience where ownership seems an obsolete concept. Yet, as in any evolution, there have been trade-offs, especially regarding the control and security of our personal and business data.

The trend of using managed Kubernetes clusters and remote storage solutions poses another layer of complexity. Are you still able to recover and replicate your data in case the provider will cease operations, increase prices, or change terms? This scenario echoes the plight of many companies who put their data "in the cloud" but found pulling them out so expensive that they're now glued to the provider.

In other cases, the purpose is a strong lock-in, as in the case, for example, of the main management systems used by accountants in Italy. By law, there is an obligation to preserve data for a certain number of years. In the event of a change in management system, they will be forced to continue paying a (very high) fee for years just to have access to their "own" archive. Note the quotation marks around own: if I have to pay not to lose access to something that is mine, it is not mine.

When we agree to use a SaaS, we are putting our data in the hands of others, risking losing both access and control over them. In some cases, even ownership. Who, then, is the real owner of our data?

We are the only and exclusive owners when:

  • We can freely access our data, without having to ask or pay.
  • We can freely copy our data, without permissions or requests from third parties.
  • We can know, at any time, where the data is and, if possible, have a copy "under the desk".
  • We can export them to another format, making them future-proof.

Facing this challenge requires a change in mindset and the search for alternatives. Open source, for example, offers not only transparency but also greater control over our digital tools. Platforms that allow hosting our own data, like Nextcloud for storage or the Fediverse (for example, Mastodon and other similar solutions) for social, can be ways out of this labyrinth, giving us back control. Moreover, familiarizing ourselves with the principles of data minimization and self-hosting can be a first step in reducing our dependence on third-party solutions that treat our data more as merchandise than as a personal right.

The question of who is the real owner of our data is not just rhetorical but an alarm bell for our digital autonomy. It's time to reflect on the long-term implications of our technological choices and to consider concrete steps to reassert control over our data.

Written and posted by: Stefano Marinelli