Robert Thelen

Nov 19, 2021

6 min read

Personal information is the new uranium

Starting in 2014, founders, CEOs, and tech reporters seemed to find a new catchphrase: “Data is the new oil”.

Data in the 21st Century is like Oil in the 18th Century: an immensely, untapped valuable asset. Like oil, for those who see Data’s fundamental value and learn to extract and use it there will be huge rewards. — Wired, 2014

I fundamentally agree that overall, most data is like oil. Getting a huge amount of telemetry from a car to teach AI how to drive is indeed a valuable asset. Understanding and training AI on how to fold proteins require a huge amount of refined data. There is fundamental value there and those that know how to extract it will find huge rewards. New data wells, refineries and pipes will be required if we are determined to recreate the first moments of our universe and predict how it will end.

The oil metaphor works for these use-cases because the raw data has to be collected, piped, refined, sorted, and then “burned” in AI engines to be utilized. But, like any good metaphor, it has its limits. Personal information is not like oil.

Personal information is already mined, it already has been refined, it has already been transformed from raw data to information, and it is a limited resource. Most of the time, our email, phone number, demographics, name, address, income does not have to be mined because we freely and sometimes unknowingly, give it away. True, some companies “mine” raw data because they are too afraid or unable to ask for it (see Surveillance Capitalism)but the information already exists and only requires a simple form on a website to collect.

99% of the “big data” around personal information are facts you already know about yourself. That is not to say that personal data is not important for the modern web. It is critical. Personal information is what powers personalization, customization, and the optimization that we have come to love about Web2. But personal data has its own rules, its own laws, its own risks, its own value. Personal data is closer to uranium than it is to oil.

Properties of uranium and personal information

Uranium is super dense and radioactive. It has to be handled with care and if you get too much of it close together, it both becomes incredibly valuable and even more volatile. Uranium can be used to power a country, save lives, or to hurt or kill millions. In the right hands, under the correct protection, with the most up-to-date technology, uranium may save the world.

Personal information is also super dense and radioactive. It has to be handled with care and if you get too much of it close together, it both becomes incredibly valuable and even more volatile. Personal information can be used to power the modern web, save lives, or hurt millions. In the right hands, under the correct protection, with the most up-to-date technology, personal information may even save the internet.

Personal information is packed with power. With just an email, an organization can start to communicate after a user leaves a site. App tracking allows sites to follow you after you leave (your browsing history is personal data!), names help personalize and identify. Other demographic information can help personalize and customize shopping experiences. If a shoe company knows my age and gender, it can show me the type of shoes that I am more likely to buy. Add in income and interests, and it can price discriminate and personalize even more. All of this data is extremely valuable making it a prime target for hackers and leaks.

In addition, regulations and penalties have been increasing over the past few years for personal data breaches and leaks. According to IBM, the legal and reputation costs of a data breach in 2021 is over $4M and climbs each year. The question should be: Why are so many companies holding this dangerous material?

A million mini-home-made nuclear power plants, what could go wrong?

At home nuclear power plants cannot be as safe as centralized ones

Companies need personal information to power their companies and bottom-lines, and since there were no other choices, they decided to build their own makeshift nuclear power plants. Imagine a world where Nike, Ford, Hyatt, Kickstarter, and every organization had their own actual nuclear power plant to literally keep the lights on at their offices and server rooms. They might buy some parts, and some may even employ nuclear scientists, but each company, regardless of size or expertise, gathers uranium, holds it, safeguards it, and then powers their web experiences.

The waste would be immense and the dangers would be greater. A terrorist or thieves would just look for a company that has no business in nuclear power (perhaps a hotel chain) and would test, poke and phish to see how up-to-date they were on their security. Every company and organization would have to keep all of these reactors up to date with the latest technology, staff full-time security guards, and deal with nuclear waste.

But this is exactly what almost every company is doing with personal information and the consequences are all around us. Consumer trust that companies can store personal data safely is at all-time low, data breaches are at an all time high. It is time to centralize personal data.

Nuclear power plants — centralize risk while supplying power

Modern nuclear power plants are safe, secure, and efficient

So, how do you convince millions of organizations to give up their uranium and move it to a centralized location? They need to a guarantee that they can still have access to the power provided by it. They will also need a mechanism to access that power to still feed their businesses needs now and in the future.

Next, the uranium removal costs have to be low, quick, and not increase risk. The good news is, the pipes and wires they already built inside their offices can be utilized and integrated into the new system, making to fast and cost-effective to flip over.

Finally, the additional safety and reduced risk far outweigh any costs of the above. Imagine walking into a store and finding out that they are running a nuclear reactor in their basement. You may not spend much time there, you might take extra precautions when entering, and you may not trust the food or products being sold there for fear it MIGHT be radioactive.

Moving personalized information from millions of organization-controlled databases to centralized locations or data trusts can save a huge amount of costs and decrease risks. It can make us all safer. Consumers data is protected, companies are protected from the risk of handling that data. The centralized data trust can invest in the latest technology, can hire the greatest guards, and they can ensure waste is recycled using the latest technology and security standards. Furthermore, through the database, SaaS integrations, and APIs, companies can still have access to data they’ve collected. Finally, visitors and new clients will no longer fear the radiation, they can spend more time and buy without fear.

Personal data has already been refined into personal information — Our name, sex, gender, age, birth date, country of origin, employer, address, face, voice, opinions, national ID number, bank information, income level, likes, dislikes, what we love, what we hate, sexual orientation, relationship status, citizenship information, employment status, our family information, etc, etc is all ready fully available and ready to access, in our own minds.