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Who Owns the Data?

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You’re on vacation. You’re filming your loved ones in a famous setting. Or just filming a busy street, trying to save the energy of the moment for later enjoyment. The footage is yours, right? Not so fast…

What about all those people you just filmed? They have rights, right? Have you asked their permission? Of course not, and it’s obvious that my line of questions is getting out of hand. Still, this is all around us, every day. We need protection. We have rights. We must be respected. We don’t want our face on TV or on some other dude’s home screen, etc. I’m sure you’re getting the drift, and here’s the real problem: There are scores of lawyers, bureaucrats, lawmakers etc. out there who’s fighting to protect you, your rights and a lot more that you didn’t know existed. And it didn’t until they invented it. Completely useless, but the world – you and I – are taking the bait. We think they are looking out for us. 

I hate to spoil the party, but they don’t. They’re looking out for themselves. They have no clue about data, technology, not even privacy although that’s what they claim to be protecting. It’s a long story, one that affects all of us and one I’m going to revisit from a number of different angles in the coming months. And here’s the spoiler: GDPR and the likes in different parts of the world do more harm than good.

Today’s issue is part of the picture: Do the people who more or less accidentally happen to end up in your shots and movie clips own the shot, or do you as the ‘camera owner’ have sole ownership?

A few years back, the question would have appeared insane. And honestly, it’s just as insane today, but it still gets asked all the time. And, having been subjected to the reality distortion server by all these specialists for a few years, the answer doesn’t seem obvious. For example: You’ve no doubt noticed that news footage these days is frequently blurred (‘pixelated’) – faces taken away to anonymize subjects and thus (allegedly) protect privacy. Excuse me, but this is naïvité bordering on stupidity. If someone is so afraid of being recognized in public, they should really stay at home – or at least keep away from public places. We’re even pixelating the faces of Ukrainian refugees, pretending to protect them. We’re not. What we’re doing is creating more bullshit jobs (remember David Graeber’s book?) that seem important but are completely useless.

The risk of being filmed or ‘shot’ just about anywhere these days must be north of 30%. Also – another party-spoiler – creating digital anonymity via blurring doesn’t work. It may prevent a neighbour from recognizing you, but – as was demonstrated by researchers in a different context recently – advanced AI (aka GANs, Generative Adversarial Networks) can easily reverse even (seemingly) extreme blurring. There are no shortcuts.

So again, who owns the data? The answer is very simple: You do. If someone challenges you, ask for the rules and regulations they base their claim on. Because there are none – unless it can be proven that you’re actually stalking or surveying someone or creating a business out of photographing them. Blurring faces from the kids’ birthday parties? Get real.

The truth is – we’re being had. By serious looking people (aka ‘professionals’) claiming to look out for our own good. We could use that, because there are real and severe problems to solve in the digital/privacy realm. But we – and those creating laws, rules and regulations in particular – have understood neither the problem nor the challenge yet. Until we – and they, or preferably someone else with different intentions – do, we’re worse off than when we started.

If this subject gets you excited one way or the other, stay tuned to this channel. There is more to come.

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