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Overview from TED

The world's most valuable tech companies profit from the personal data you generate. So why aren't you getting paid for it? In this eye-opening talk, entrepreneur and technologist Jennifer Zhu Scott makes the case for private data ownership - which would empower you to donate, destroy or sell your data as you see fit - and shows how this growing movement could put power (and cash) back into the hands of people.

"Seven out of the top 10 most valuable companies in the world are tech companies that either directly generate profit from data or are empowered by data from the core."

White Brick Wall
Jennifer Zhu Scott

Entrepreneur | Technologist

As an AI researcher and specialist on digital assets, Jennifer Zhu Scott has her finger on the pulse of technologies that are poised to change our economies and our lives. Scott is a frequent public speaker and opinion writer on AI, blockchain, digital currencies and data ownership.



Most of my friends and family have now heard me give the lecture about the value of their personal data. In recent years, we’ve all started waking up to the realisation that our data is a profitable commodity, but how many of us have done anything about it?

From purchase histories to political persuasions, tech giants such as Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook know our likes and dislikes better than many of our friends do – and manipulate us accordingly. This TED Talk sets out how we could take back control.

Jennifer Zhu Scott, speaking at the TEDWomen 2019 conference, draws comparisons between the current data landscape and her childhood:

"I grew up in the late '70s in rural China during the final years of my country's pursuit of absolute equality at the expense of liberty. At that time, everybody had a job, but everyone was struggling… We were undoubtedly equal -- we were equally poor. The state owned everything. We owned nothing."

Data - Zhu Scott asserts – represents a new form of “collective poverty”, and one that urgently needs to be understood.

With the explosion of technology over the past twenty years or so, we – as a society – have willingly offered our data in return for access. It’s almost second nature to “accept cookies” when browsing so we can watch that funny cat video without interruption. Or mindlessly click “agree” to terms and conditions as we set up our new smartphone, download an app or create an account to take part in the latest social media trend. Many of us don’t give these actions a second thought.

But what if sharing our data was rewarded with cash instead?

If it’s difficult to envisage a world where our personal data could command any form of meaningful currency, perhaps that’s because we’ve all become too accustomed to giving it away for free. But Zhu Scott has other ideas…


For any company, data is an asset. It allows businesses to make informed decisions. Data represents the lightbulb in an otherwise pitch black room; illuminating what works and what doesn’t. Without it, they’re all just fumbling about in the dark – clueless about their audience, their message and if a “product” (whether a purchasable object, an ideology or a political candidate) is worth their time and effort in the first place.

Where the issue lies, however, is that it’s the public powering that lightbulb. And doing so for free! Every swipe of a smartphone, search on Google or like on Facebook is helping to power these multi-billion dollar companies. 

Zhu Scott elaborates:

"Seven out of the top 10 most valuable companies in the world are tech companies that either directly generate profit from data or are empowered by data from the core. Multiple surveys show that the vast majority of business decision makers regard data as an essential asset for success… Whoever owns the data owns the future."

She continues:

"It is estimated that by 2030, 10 years from now, there will be about 125 billion connected devices in the world. That's an average of about 15 devices per person. We are already producing data every day. We'll be producing exponentially more.

"Google, Facebook and Tencent's combined revenue in 2018 was 236 billion US dollars. Now, how many of you have received payment from them for the data you generate for them? None, right? Data has immense value but is centrally controlled and owned. You are all walking raw materials for those large data companies, but none of you are paid."

The last sentence particularly resonated with me. In this digital age, the sharing of data isn’t limited to certain cities or demographics – it’s a global matter. One which impacts every person on the planet who interacts with the internet.


For the past few years, public discourse has been primarily focused on regulation, particularly pertaining to privacy. On typing “Cambridge Analytica” into Google, I am presented with the following “People also ask” list of questions:

·  What did Facebook do with Cambridge Analytica?

·  Does Cambridge Analytica have my data?

·  Did Facebook break the law with Cambridge Analytica?

·  Does Facebook sell your data?

The terms used here are illuminating in themselves.

Firstly, “my data” signifies ownership – that data is, in fact, an entity than can be owned in the first place, and that it belongs to each of us. Secondly, that Facebook could feasibly “sell” said data. This raises troubling questions. If Facebook (in theory) can sell my data, why can’t I? How much are they selling it for? Who are they selling it to? And why?

Needless to say, the scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is a whole hornets’ nest that I won’t venture into here, but the fundamentals are clear: our data is valuable and we aren’t the ones reaping the rewards.

Zhu Scott wants this to change:

"What if we look at data ownership in completely different ways? What if data ownership is, in fact, a personal, individual and economic issue? What if, in the new digital economy, we are allowed to own a piece of what we create and give people the liberty of private data ownership?

"The legal concept of ownership is when you can possess, use, gift, pass on, destroy or trade it or sell your asset at a price accepted by you. What if we give that same definition to individuals' data, so individuals can use or destroy our data or we trade it at our chosen price?"

A market in which to trade your data may sound implausible, but Zhu Scott believes a growing and powerful individual data ownership movement is on the horizon.

I’m a big fan of Brave – a new browser that aggressively blocks data-grabbing ads and trackers – which I’d highly recommend.  Zhu Scott cites it as an example of how users are beginning to take back bargaining and pricing power. And Brave aren’t the only start-up working from that principle… DuckDuckGo, and UBDI (Universal Basic Data Income) are all companies / initiatives built with user control at their core.

Zhu Scott concludes:

"Throughout history, there has always been a trade-off between liberty and equality in the pursuit of prosperity. The world has constantly been going through the circle of wealth accumulation to wealth redistribution. As the tension between the haves and have-nots is breaking so many countries, it is in everyone's interest, including the large data companies, to prevent this new form of inequality...

"…According to McKinsey, AI will add 13 trillion US dollars of economic output in the next 10 years. Data generated by individuals will no doubt contribute to this enormous growth… it is our duty and we owe it to future generations to create a more inclusive AI economy that will empower the people in addition to businesses."

No more sharing and selling your data without your say-so, and a few extra pennies in your pocket to boot? Sounds great! I’ll be including that in my next lecture…

For more entertaining, insightful and thought-provoking talks, visit

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