Does all information about you belong to you?


This is a multi-faceted topic, one that sprawls many fields, from computer science to law, but I will attempt to be brief.

Does information about you belong to you?

In today's society, the topics of information / data ownership and privacy are common. With this field as an example, one could argue that, subjectively, all data about you belongs to you. It seems to make sense.

But what about information about you, that you were not aware of, which was discovered by someone else?

To break this down, consider a visit to the doctor in which they discover something regarding your health. Does this piece of information belong to you even if you didn't know about it? Does it belong to whoever discovered it? Does it belong to anyone at all?


Posted 2019-06-20T14:01:19.847

Reputation: 137

Question was closed 2019-06-24T04:25:01.237

1From a "privacy" point of view, your Doctor is not entitled to divulgate to third parties the newly discovered info regarding your health. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2019-06-20T14:06:01.587

3Much of this is a trap of language. Despite the common parlance the idea of ownership of physical objects does not transfer to abstractions like information. What the talk of "intellectual property" refers to is regulation of social behavior to advance certain policy goals, like conflict avoidance, stimulation of creative work, etc. So information "belonging" or not does not really mean anything. One can only ask what privacy regulation would be more beneficial for whatever social ends one wishes to advance. And we need to know what those are for you to answer. – Conifold – 2019-06-20T15:35:44.953

The use of medical information is maybe not the best example. Rather use something like your taste in furniture which you may not be acutely be aware of, but an online shopping site could easily discover. – christo183 – 2019-06-21T07:39:21.420

Suppose you are out in public and I take a photo of you. Who owns the photo? In the US, the photographer does. The law is unambiguous. It's true that the photographer may not make commercial use of your photo. But the photographer may without restriction make journalistic or artistic use. The law is clear. There are many other similar examples. If I'm planning to open a shop and I stand in front of my prospective location and count foot traffic, that data belongs to me, not to the passersby I count. – user4894 – 2019-06-22T19:48:15.037

i agree with @Conifold a better paradigm for what you mean is 'privacy' – None – 2019-06-22T19:54:42.177

It is true that (right or wrong) doctors may assume full control over the information, whether opinion or fact, they can choose to share with the patients who hire them for their services. I see it as an imbalance of power. – Bread – 2019-06-23T01:47:27.557

For an immediate counterexample, my private opinion of you does not belong to you. It cannot belong to both of us entirely. – None – 2019-06-23T16:04:07.873

@jobermark Granted, but I doubt this question is about private opinions. It's about information that affects you personally, not about anyone's opinions. And it's not about broadcasting the information to anyone other than you, the patient (or client, as the case may be). It's about withholding costly information you have sought in good faith, in order to make decisions about your health and future. – Bread – 2019-06-24T00:21:23.757

If you pay a company to build a fence around your property, and they build the fence, is it their fence (since they ordered the materials and supplies and then labored to build it)? No, it's yours, because you paid them for it. Simple contract law. Unfortunately with information, it's just too easy to steal or misappropriate. – Bread – 2019-06-24T00:26:33.140

@Bread Information is information and people's personal opinions do, in fact, affect the people they have them about, or at least shape interactions with them. The simplest answer to any absolute question is often to take what is actually asked to its logical extreme and work backward toward a realistic anser from there. It is a valid way to address this question. Since this is actually a logically correct, but useless answer, the question needs help. The purpose of comments on the question is to improve the question. If I thought it was a genuine answer, I would offer it as an answer. – None – 2019-06-24T03:30:52.287

@Conifold Despite the common parlance the idea of ownership of physical objects does not transfer to abstractions like information :While I fully agree on this point, but I can still write the proposition and I know what it means -even if the word has not been used this way till date. The statement in itself isn't senseless; it is certainly possible for information to belong to someone much like my pen belongs to me (ownership is an idea). What are your views on this? In fact, if a word can only be used in its original context of first usage: then we will be able to speak very few things. – Ajax – 2019-06-28T20:49:30.850

If you agree on the disanalogy then you agree that the "much like my pen belongs to me" analogy can not give sense to the ownership of information. You can give it a sense some other way, but it is not enough for you alone to know what it is if you wish to share it with others. I sketched one way to do so: how much privacy do we, as a society, wish to grant individuals, and in what contexts. But the language in your post ("discovery", etc.) suggests that you wish to take the analogy beyond what this interpretation can bear. – Conifold – 2019-06-29T00:24:35.463



From Kant (or a more naturalistic form of ethics respecting human freedom as a principle) people have a deserved autonomy that should not be infringed. To the degree that information allows other people to infringe your autonomy to an unfair degree, you should have the means to defend yourself. That means that some information about you needs to be more accessible to you than to anyone else. Not all information serves that purpose. In fact, most does not.

If all information about you belonged to you, it would be absolutely impossible to ever conduct a double-blind drug trial. It would be impossible for people to composite medical outcome results honestly (because each patient would be able to withhold or contribute their information, and the demographics of who would choose to do which level of control would make the resulting statistics useless.) It would be impossible to take a crowd scene photograph for journalistic purposes. We could never document war crimes. In fact, it would be basically impossible to prosecute any crime not committed in the open.

Even some information that is dangerous to you has to belong to someone else if it is necessary to monitor crime and defend the rights of those around you. Statistical medical information needs to belong to those who verify the scientific underpinnings of medicine remain in good repair. Etc. Information generally needs to belong to those most capable of making sense of it, as long as they cannot use it to control individuals unduly.

So the proper way of looking at information accessibility in general, ethically, needs to be in terms of power, influence, justice, and self-defense, not as property rights (whatever the habit-to-date of law has been.) Even patent law, though referred to as intellectual property rights, is not about property rights, it is about making the sharing of art and technology safe for its producers. So it is ultimately about safety and an indirect form of self-defense.


Posted 2019-06-20T14:01:19.847



How is it that we can own information at all?

Could someone own the number two? Intuitively, I think we'd be tempted to say no. Numbers don't seem to be things you can own. However, any piece of information can be expressed in binary code (i.e. by a number.) So if we say we can own information, we will also have to own those corresponding numbers. Given this metaphysical queerness, I would say that if we can own information it is only by convention.

But with this view the question turns from "Do we, in fact, own information about ourselves?" to "Should personal information be owned or otherwise controlled by the individual?"

Scott Eichler

Posted 2019-06-20T14:01:19.847

Reputation: 1

I think what you are asking at the end of your answer is the same thing the OP is asking. Consider it from a privacy perspective with medical records as an example. Or if someone creates a book do they have ownership rights over that information? – Frank Hubeny – 2019-06-20T15:49:01.653

I think there's a subtlety here; numbers corresponding to statements aren't the same thing as information. Consider for example that we could enumerate claims about my blood type and map numbers to each claim (e.g., n1=O, n2=A, n3=B, n4=AB). If I make all four claims to Fred, he has no idea what my blood type is; for him to have information about my blood type, we would have to narrow down the enumeration somehow, and have that narrowing depend in a semantically relevant way on what is being claimed (e.g., I claim I have O because I was tested and the result is O). – H Walters – 2019-06-21T00:39:37.053

@HWalters Fair enough. One would to know how to interpret these sorts of numbers in order to understand what "n1" was supposed to mean. I think my intent was much better addressed by Conifold's comment on the OP. Should I delete this answer? – Scott Eichler – 2019-06-21T20:36:28.713

Your question is really too broad, but what I would say is that there are many ways in which you can give consent to release information and this has multiplied exponentially in the advancement of the computer age. it's relentless like facing a full time never-ending blitz in a war. They are working (usually legally!!) when you are sleeping. One consent opens others. Almost impossible for regulators to get on top of it. – Gordon – 2019-06-22T03:32:41.763

You can direct specific questions about medical records to Legal SE perhaps a lawyer from your jurisdiction will know more. For instance, just by being a participant in NHS, you may be deemed to have given consent to release certain information to other parties. (I do not know). – Gordon – 2019-06-22T03:35:46.590

(Sorry I meant these comments to be directly under the OP's question). – Gordon – 2019-06-22T03:37:52.110