Take Control of Your Data Ownership

July 6, 2015

By continuing to use certain programs, including your EHR, you allow access to your data. Here's some guidance keeping your information private.

A recently published report by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania describes the "

." Companies interpret your willingness to give them, or allow them to use, your information as a sign that you feel you are getting fair value in exchange. When you become a customer or client of a company that offers a one-of-a-kind product or service, they interpret your action as a sign that you are pleased with their policies and with the value you are getting. Only companies that have a monopoly can get away with this. A company doesn't have to be big and predatory to have a monopoly.  

Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, your e-mail provider (if your address is me@ myprovider.com), your EHR, the bank where your direct deposits are sent, etc., each have a monopoly as far as an individual user/customer is concerned.

Does a business' estimate of the value you're getting jibe with yours? According to the study it doesn't. The "Tradeoff Fallacy" concentrates on personal information but the concept actually extends to any business that has you locked in, such as when your EHR vendor asks (forces) you to pay for an upgrade. It happens when any product that you use changes their terms and conditions and takes your continued use as evidence that you agree with them.

The reason the authors say it's a fallacy is that what the business believes about the value of their stuff is generally different from how people see things. People don't like being asked to reveal themselves, but they do it. They feel powerless to do anything else. There is generally no way to negotiate other terms and conditions, something that might be possible in a face-to-face interaction, so most people have simply resigned themselves to being ordered around that they no longer even look at the fine print.

There are a couple of things you can do to avoid being sucked in these vortices. One is to "just say no" to services that play fast and loose with your information, such as selling it without your knowledge. These services can be addictive so if you can't escape your dependence completely, perhaps you can cut the number way down and avoid the urge to sign up for more.

Another strategy to avoid getting locked in by monopolistic products and services is to use commodities, freeware, and products that are "open source" and eschew DRM (which prevents downloading your Kindle eBook so you could continue to use it if Amazon goes bust. Here's more about DRM). Commodities are interchangeable. Fundamentally a lettuce is a lettuce and a car is a car. It's hard to get locked into a commodity item.

Freeware can be obtained and used anonymously. If you like it, and use it a lot, you can pay for it anonymously, which is a good idea if you would like it to be around in the future. Some freeware alternatives to proprietary products that I find useful are:

• LibreOffice, a pretty good - and getting better - replacement for Microsoft Office.

• Calibre, an absolutely wonderful program for managing and reading eBooks, especially the ones that are free, open source, and DRMless. It will even convert free eBooks to Kindle format and transfer them to the device.

• VLC, a media player with most of the function found in iTunes and the Microsoft media player.

• GIMP, is a freely distributed app for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition, and image authoring. It's no Photoshop, but it's free.

• Firefox Web Browser has many useful features that are not found in the browsers that come from the monopolizers. Occasionally webpages don't render or function correctly but it's still my go-to browser.

• Thunderbird E-mail Client is less vulnerable to attack than Microsoft Outlook. I've tried Outlook and Apple Mail and neither of them have the flexibility and usability of this one.

All of these run on Windows, Mac, and Linux minimizing lock-in.

A big question remains: Are the companies that use lock-in as the means of getting your information right or are the authors of "Tradeoff Fallacy" right? Do you value information about yourself highly or not very much? If the answer is "not very much" then maybe you are getting fair value in exchange for handing it over. If the answer is "a lot" then, unfortunately, you're being taken advantage of and it's going to take some work to develop a strategy for keeping as much of it private as possible.