Who Owns the Data You Grow?

On February 20, we reported on sensors that enable farmers to manage water and cultivation. This is not small time information collection. Weather, water use, fertilizers, moisture, evaporation, and production, measured 24-7, for hundreds or thousands of acres, has brought agriculture into the era of Big Data.

But who owns that data once a company is hired to stream and store it? Who owns yours? The question that preoccupies open source advocates, big business, policy makers, even Facebook users, is now being asked down on the farm. Capital Press, a western agricultural news site, warns farmers to make sure the data they produce is their own:

Barrie Robison, associate director of the University of Idaho Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies, likened big data’s potential in agriculture to the medical field. Information in a general database could help determine the right drug and the right dose for individual patients. Similarly, data from a farm database could help determine the right inputs to use in a particular circumstance.


“You have all of this information about you and your operation in a giant database. Let’s ask, Who would we want to access that?”

Robison raised the possibility of collaborators, competitors, the government and banks being able to see the data.

“If it’s in there, you have to really pay attention to who is allowed to see it and why would they want to see it,” he said.

MIT Technology Review described a different world:

It has become profitable to build a database containing the entire world’s knowledge. The few for-profit companies that own the data and the tools to mine it – the data infrastructure – possess great power to understand and predict the world. But could we create a similarly powerful public data infrastructure, a Big Data for the masses, that anyone in the world could access?

We are all better off when dominant technology platforms are operated in the public interest. That is what happened with both the Internet and the Web, and that is why those platforms have been such a powerful spur to innovation. For example, when the computer industry moved from a proprietary platform (Windows) to an open platform (the Web) not owned by anyone in particular, the result was a resurgence of software innovation.

In anticipation of a White House report on big data, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sounded this warning:

Fundamentally, the privacy and fairness implications of big data are closely tied to concerns about social, economic and political power. Both the public and private sector have strong interests in collecting and using data about individuals, whether for business or for social control.

But the February 15 report by a White House big data and privacy working groupread more like catch-up than a road map to a more secure cyber future:

The declining cost of data collection, storage, and processing, coupled with new sources of data from sensors, cameras, and geospatial technologies, means that we live in a world where data collection is nearly ubiquitous, where data retention can be functionally permanent, and where data analysis is increasingly conducted in speeds approaching real time. While there are promising technological means to better protect privacy in a big data world, the report’s authors concluded these methods are far from perfect, and technology alone cannot protect privacy absent strong social norms and a responsive policy and legal framework.

The conclusions reached by the White House group after 90 days of study were perhaps articulated more simply during a big data panel discussion at the Spokane Ag Expo and Pacific Northwest Farm Forum, as reported by Capital Press:

“I don’t think we can stress enough: Read your contracts,” said Jim Armstrong, recently retired from the Spokane Conservation District and moderator of the panel. “We just don’t take the time to do that, and we’re asking for a train wreck by not doing that.”

Have you read your user agreements lately?