Archive for January, 2009

Is Personal Information Property?

Note: This article originally appeared on the Security Catalyst Blog

A colleague recently asked me, “When did my personal information become someone’s property?” It’s a question with a vital answer, because if my personal information belongs to someone else, then they can do whatever they want with it. If data is property, then they can buy, sell, license, or give away my identity without my consent. This puts me at risk, because I must rely on the good will of a third party to keep my identity secure.

But if personal information really were property, then I should be able to permanently sell, or “alienate,” it. But unfortunately, I can’t sell personal information like a car. If I sell my car and the new owner paints it purple or runs it into a tree, it’s not my problem. But we all know that if I sell my personal information and the new owner “crashes” my identity, I suffer. Unlike all forms of property, personal information is inherently inalienable. Unless you enter the witness protection program, you’re stuck with your identity no matter how many times you sell it, and no matter how many times it is crashed.

Data is Property

Data behaves like property because 1. Data has value, like property. 2. Data is fungible, like property, and 3. Data is alienable, like property. For most types of information (ie, trade secrets, copyrightable or patentable information, etc) Intellectual Property law treats data like property with no problems, because trade secrets and patents are valuable, fungible, and alienable.

However, the analogy between data and property breaks down when we get to personal information, primarily because personal information is NOT alienable. Consequently, Intellectual Property law does not generally treat personal information as property.1 Most personal information, such as names, addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers are facts. Facts are not copyrightable.2 You can’t patent personal information,3 and it certainly isn’t a trade secret.4 In short, nobody “owns” my name, including myself. And if someone could “own” my name, it would most logically be my parents, since they created it. But my mom can’t copyright my date of birth, and the government can’t patent my social security number. My phone number is not an AT&T trade secret, nor is it mine.

Personal information is valuable and fungible. Entire multi-billion dollar industries thrive on the sale and exchange of personal information. United States election law requires candidates disclose the value of all in-kind campaign donations, including databases of potential voters.5 Other federal and state statutes, such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, require corporations to account for the fair market value of assets, which may include customer data. And personal information is extremely fungible, as information in databases can be shared, sold, licensed, stolen, or lost with remarkable efficiency.6

Because personal information is valuable and fungible, it is often treated like property. Tort law implies that some forms of privacy come from a trademark-like ownership of one’s name and likeness.7 Even breach notification laws seem to assert that companies which collect personal information “own” it.8

But that isn’t the whole story. Unlike every other form of property, personal information is not alienable, (such as bank account numbers, credit scores, social security numbers, or police reports) even if a third party creates it. And unfortunately, you don’t have any constitutional right of privacy when you give your personal data to a third party.9

Because personal information is not alienable, it is sufficiently different from traditional “property” that IP law does not provide a helpful framework for managing it.

Self is Data

In the Information Age, you are not much more than “an electronic collage of bits of information, a digital person composed in the collective computer networks of the world.”10 In other words, a person may now be defined as just a few pieces of data. This data is your Data Self. Your Data Self is a collection of your credit report, facebook page, Google results, Bank account numbers, archived e-mails, and an endless parade of other data. Your Data Self is a digital alter-ego, with its own personality, dispositions, fallacies and mortality. Your Data Self also has the power to enter contracts, grant access to your financial assets, have surgery, commit crimes, or be kidnapped.

When your Data Self belongs to someone else, it can be forced to act against your will. If someone makes your Data Self sign a contract, you are bound by it. If your Data Self is convicted of a crime, you can go to jail. If someone forces your Data Self to take out a loan, you must repay it. If your Data Self has an operation, you may no longer qualify for medical insurance. If your Data Self is abused, stolen, sold, manipulated, or forced to act against its will, you suffer the consequences. In this sense, “Identity Theft” might be more descriptively defined as “Digital Kidnapping.” Identity Theft is when someone pretends to be you by “kidnapping” your Data Self, doing something bad, and you get blamed.

Self is Property

In my view, this is a startling development. As long as my Data Self is a third party’s possession, then they can also treat me like property. In other words, if Self is Data and Data is Property, then Self is Property. The now popular crime of Identity Theft is the most visible consequence of this trend. In fact, “Identity Theft” epitomizes the problem with treating personal information as property: The very term recognizes that you have an alter-ego digital “identity” or Data Self. It also acknowledges that your Data Self can be stolen and abused, like property.

Fortunately the 13th Amendment ended human trafficking, and human muscle, once required for agriculture and labor, does not command the same economic premium in a post-industrial society. Instead, a person’s economic value now lies in his access to financial assets and credit. Our Data Selves are easy to coerce, and people are now worth more in bytes than in flesh and blood. As long as Data Selves are digital property, new crimes similar to identity theft will continue to arise, and our society runs the sinister risk of a new form of human trafficking: A type of Digital Slavery, where third parties can own, abuse, and force Data Selves to act against their will.

Facing the possibility of this new class of crimes, the law should neither permit personal information to be treated as property, nor can we afford to go down that path.

Aaron Titus is the Privacy Director for the Liberty Coalition, runs National ID Watch, and welcomes feedback.


1. 19 NO. 7 Intell. Prop. & Tech. L.J. 5, 8

2. Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service, 499 U.S. 340, 363-64, 111 S.Ct. 1282, 1297 (1991) (Holding that an alphabetized collection of personal facts in a phone book is not copyrightable because 1. Facts are not copyrightable, and 2. The phone book lacks minimally creative selection, coordination, and arrangement. “As a statutory matter, 17 U.S.C. 101 does not afford protection from copying to a collection of facts that are selected, coordinated, and arranged in a way that utterly lacks originality.”)
3. 35 U.S.C.A. 101-102.
4. Facts in a database may qualify for trade secret protection under state law, but only if the information meets stringent requirements, and remains secret. 19 NO. 7 Intell. Prop. & Tech. L.J. 5, 8.

5. 2 U.S.C.A 431(8)(a).
6. Identity Theft Resource Center, Press Release – 2007 Breach List; Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, A Chronology of Data Breaches.
7. “Tort” law is common- or judge-made law that allows people to sue others for doing bad things. For example, the tort of Appropriation of Name or Likeness is when someone uses a person’s name or picture for financial gain: Rest. 2d Torts 652C cmt a. (1977) (The Tort of Appropriation of Likeness gives the individual “exclusive use of his own identity, in so far as it is represented by his name or likeness, and in so far as the use may be of benefit to him or to others. Although the protection of his personal feelings against mental distress is an important factor leading to a recognition of the rule, the right created by it is in the nature of a property right, for the exercise of which an exclusive license may be given to a third person, which will entitle the licensee to maintain an action to protect it.”);

8. See, e.g. Cal. Civ. Code 1798.81.5(a).
9. United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435, 443-44 (1976) (Holding that bank records have no fourth amendment protection, and are subject to government subpoena with no infringement of an individual’s rights).
10. Solove, Daniel J., The Digital Person. New York University Press, New York. 2004. p. 2

No Comments

In Defense of Breach Notification Laws (sort of)

Note: This article was originally published on the Security Catalyst Blog.

Starting with California’s 2003 law, all but a hand full of states have now enacted breach notification laws (BNLs). Though each is subtly different, all notification laws recognize that a if your identity, or Data Self, is treated as mere chattel, it is subject to fraud and abuse. These laws require data stewards to notify an individual when his identity has been lost or kidnapped.

Your identity or Data Self is a digital alter-ego: a collection of personal facts which has its own life, fallacies, and mortality. Data is Self, but data is also treated like property. If Self is data, and data is property, then Self is property. If your Self is the property of others, then it can be bought, sold, traded, lost, stolen, or damaged like any other form of property. Identity Theft is just that: Where a person’s Data Self is stolen and abused.

Measures of BNL Success

With five years of breach notification law experience, it is essential to ask, “Are they working?” My shorthand answer is “yes, sort of.”

I’ll be the first to admit that breach notifications are noisy, and contain a strong element of political theater. Some contend that notification laws may even be harmful, distracting and confusing consumers into thinking they aren’t at risk if they don’t receive a notice. I agree that as currently written, breach notification laws have several shortcomings. But their success or failure should be measured in several ways:

  1. Decreased Incidence of Identity Theft
  2. Increased Awareness and Identity Control
  3. Decreased Risk Behaviors and Incidence of Breach
  4. Increased Victims’ Rights

1. Decreased Incidence of Identity Theft

Q: Do breach notification laws decrease identity theft?

A: Probably not. Several breach notification laws emphasize the need to protect consumers from identity theft and other misuse of a person’s Data Self. However, researchers Sasha Romanosky, Professor Rahul Telang, and Professor Alessandro Acquisti presented a well-reviewed paper which measured the change in the rate of reported identity thefts before and after data breach laws went on the books. Though drawn from incomplete FTC data, the paper convincingly demonstrates that breach notification laws have a negligible effect on reported identity theft rates. Instead, they suggest that a state’s gross domestic product and general fraud rate has a much stronger correlation with ID theft.

2. Increased Awareness and Identity Control

Q: Do breach notification laws increase identity risk awareness? How about consumers’ control over their identities?
A: Yes, to varying degrees. A cruel irony of data breaches is that the responsible organization is the only one who knows exactly what happened, and they have the strongest incentive to hide or skew the details. Many breaches go under- or unreported, regardless of law. Even well-intentioned organizations issue vague, incomplete, blame-shifting or liability-reducing press releases that leave victims in the dark. In order to effectively empower consumers to conduct their own risk analysis, breach notifications must contain the following elements:

  • Who: The class of victims affected by the breach.
  • What: A complete list of exposed information, not just the ones required by law.
  • Where: Exposing entity’s contact information.
  • How and When: Sufficiently detailed information about the how and when the breach occurred.
  • How Much: Total number affected, Sensitivity of information exposed, Duration of exposure, and Distribution method (ie, stolen laptop, online exposure, or dumpster).
  • What Now: A clear statement of consumer’s legal rights (or lack of rights); Concrete actions taken by the organization to fix problems, mitigate risk, or remedy harm; Suggested actions for the victim.

Of course, breach notification laws have much more lax reporting requirements than these. And although I agree that the average breach announcement is “noisy,” I think it would be a mischaracterization to label them as nothing more than “noise.” Even the least specific notifications build public awareness. For better or worse, most public awareness of identity risks come from news bulletins about data breaches. Although none of the announcements may put any particular individual on notice of a personal risk, these “noisy” notifications have a net positive effect of educating the population at large.

3. Decreased Risk Behaviors and Incidence of Breach

Q: Do breach notification laws decrease individual risk behavior?
A: Probably Not, but they have the potential to. An effective notification must contain actionable intelligence, which means Intelligence plus Action. For example, imagine that you are in a life raft in the middle of the ocean, with no hope of immediate rescue. You see bubbles. What do you do? You sink. You were able to gather intelligence, but had no way to act upon it. Intelligence without action breeds inaction.

However, imagine you’re on the same raft, and you see bubbles. But this time you have a patch kit and a hand pump. This time you have actionable intelligence, and you will likely attempt to patch the raft and pump it up.

An alert is only effective when it empowers a person to act. Typical breach announcements usually do nothing to empower individuals. Effective breach notifications require both intelligence and action. If either one of these elements is missing (as is often the case), it will fail to empower victims, and may even engender apathy.

Some suggest that in the current environment of data insecurity, consumers should be on constant high alert for identity theft, even without notice of a breach. After all, your Data Self is constantly being traded without your knowledge or consent in IT and business environments of questionable reputes.

It’s a nice thought, but not very helpful. Being on high alert all the time is essentially the same as not being on alert any of the time.

Q: Do breach notification laws encourage organizations to improve behavior?
A: Probably yes. The Romanosky paper found that notification laws likely encourage businesses to take more stringent safety precautions with personal information, because of the economic incentive to avoid breaches. However, the incentives to secure data do not appear to outweigh the market forces which devalue privacy. Both the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the OSF Data Loss Database show a steady, and perhaps even increasing number of breach incidents and lost records each year. While part of this increase may be attributable to better reporting, there is no solid indication that data breach incidents are decreasing.

4. Increased Victims’ Rights

Q: Do Breach Notification Laws Create New Rights for Consumers?
A: Absolutely yes. While not the silver bullet to cure all ails, breach notification laws are an important first step at creating rights for victims of breaches. Before BNLs, nobody had the right to know whether their Data Self had been compromised. Additional legislation will be necessary to address existing and emerging identity threats. Especially as Data Selves are treated as property, our society runs a risk that the unregulated trade of personal information could morph into a new form of digital human trafficking.

Legislative Improvements

Breach notification laws are a first step in regulating the trade of Data Selves. The right information at the right time, given to the right people, coupled with a clear course of action will empower people and catalyze change. Here are six legislative suggestions to effectively protect and empower consumers:

  1. “Stewards,” not “Owners”: Given the tenuous and dangerous legal basis for “owning” personal information, notification laws should replace the concept of “personal information owners” with “personal information stewards.” This change would help sharpen the distinction between Data as Self versus Data as Property, and emphasize that third parties can’t “own” a Data Self. When Self is Data and Data is Property, then we run the risk that Self becomes Property.
  2. Expand Reporting Requirements: Breach notifications should provide actionable intelligence, including who, what, when, how, how much, and “what now?” of each breach.
  3. Standard Measures of Risk: I suggest using Size, Sensitivity, Duration, and Distribution.
  4. Presumptive Loss: In order to successfully sue for a breach, a consumer must 1. Become an actual victim of identity theft, 2. Find the identity thief, 3. Prove that the thief’s copy of their SSN or other personal information came from the breaching entity, and 4. Prove that the entity had a legal obligation to keep that information private (a rare duty). This is an unreasonable and often insurmountable burden of proof. Instead, Tennessee has adopted a small presumptive “ascertainable loss” whenever a breach occurs. These nominal damages would recognize harm to reputation, apprehension, emotional distress, and violation of selfhood. They would also help counteract the market’s failure to value privacy
  5. Require a Data Audit Trail: Stewards of personal information should maintain standard inventory controls on personal information, recording with whom and when the personal information was shared. This data trail would be used for data audits and could help establish causation in the case of a breach.
  6. Automatic Credit Reporting: Consumers should get an automatic notification at any activity on their credit.

Aaron Titus is the Privacy Director for the Liberty Coalition and runs National ID Watch, and welcomes feedback.


Cal. Civ. Code 1798.82-84.
See, e.g. N.H. Rev. Stat. 359-C:2.
See, e.g. Ga. Code 10-1-910(4),(7).
See, e.g. Cal. Civ. Code 1798.81.5.(a).

Tenn. Code 47-18-2102(1).

No Comments