Musing about the Whose Data Is It question

I’m a pretty gregarious kind of person; I like spending time with people, stay awake all kinds of hours, travel quite a bit (on business as well as pleasure). So I know a lot of people, and a lot of people know me.

Which means I land up with a lot of information about how to contact people: telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and the like. I store this information in all kinds of places, I guess we call them social networks now. And when I store this information, I tend not to think of it as mine. Or as the social network’s. Most of the time I am a trustee of that information.

So when you give me your private mobile phone number, you trust me with that information. I am not empowered to give it to anyone I feel like, you trust that I will use that information wisely. It isn’t my information. It’s yours.

I think a lot of people feel that way.

In the old days, there was a clear distinction between professional and personal, and address books worked that way as well. When job migration was low it made a lot of sense. Now, with security of tenure a distant memory, this is harder to figure out. Quite often people have relationships that last beyond the jobs they were in when they met for the first time.

Which makes me think. Does the average professional relationship last longer than the average professional job?  Have we worked out what the implications are?

The kernel for this post was an article I read on the plane coming over to San Francisco. The headline was amazing:

Court orders ex-employee to hand over LinkedIn contacts

You can find the whole story here. It conjured up visions of this thing called LinkedIn contacts being ceremonially handed over from one person to another.

And for a moment there I thought that the value was in the relationship and not in the contact information.

If there is no relationship then it is just data. Who cares who owns it, it is just commodity. Where there is a relationship, and where the information is scarce, it is usually held in trust and cannot be given away anyway.

All this is about contact information. When we start talking about derived and ancillary information, to do with things like relationship networks, friend wheels, social graphs and so on that’s a whole different ball game. The same is true about patterns of behaviour: buying, selling, watching, eating, reading, listening.

When it comes to contact information alone, the value is not in the data but in the relationship.

9 thoughts on “Musing about the Whose Data Is It question”

  1. “…I am a trustee of that information
    …the value is not in the data but in the relationship…”: very true.
    Is discretion the better half of a relationship?

  2. The most bizzare thing about the court case is that the plaintiff clearly already has a copy of the data that ended up in the social network of the defendant. So the act of ‘handing over’ is about destruction rather than copy/move. I can’t see how such an order would be enforcable, as it would be like proving a negative.

  3. Another thought – a physical world analogy…

    When I leave my job am I expected to leave behind the cards in the rolodex on my desk, or just the rolodex itself (which is company property)?

    What happens if I never put the cards into my office rolodex, but scanned them at home and threw them into a box?

  4. I agree: the value is in the relationship, this not only in terms of the absurdity of the order to hand over the data but also in terms of the quantitative amassing of facebook “friends” and linked-in “contacts.” For the value of two words for friend (one persian in origin and the other turkic) as friendship-filters and litmus tests of relationship, see this recent musing ( ) on one of my weblogs.

  5. Theres a very protective streak that runs through many big companies’ DNA. The company thinks anything related to something of value is also of inherently of value and therefore its’ property. So the logic goes, it’s the company’s relationship not the person’s, therefore any information about the company’s clients is the company’s, even if this is really public domain or shared between individuals.

    How many vendors or customers have you had a social beer with in your career? and how many contacts do you stay in touch with between companys?. A lot, I bet. When you were last hired, it might have been a lot to do with things you have worked on previously.

    Theres a line between taking and reproducing a design for a secret product from its original documentation and taking the experience and lessons learbnt with you. The same way there is a line between taking news of a sensitive deal to a competitor and taking your customer’s phone number so you can call him again and start a new relationship from your next company.

    This is where trust and stewardship needs to work throughoput the chain, and that chain is longer than company – emloyee – client. Employees may one day be clients, ex-employees may become employees again. Creating artificial boundaries around the procedures, channels, tools and data supporting the conversations between people is a technology and litigation based way of saying “Frankly, we don’t trust you, we don’t value you, and you are only able to operate as a professional because we are here to let you”. None of these things are true in a world with ubiquitous communication.

    People will find a way to communicate and stay in touch and increasingly in ways that their employers can’t control. The employees will ultimately win the arms race against the employers trying to control communications. They have a substantial numbers numbers on their side. Even though the company’s have more expensive lawyers, you can’t push uphill forever.

  6. I also agree that the value is in relationship and not in contact data. However I wonder if in this particularly case the fact that the employee’s behavior was of questionable ethics, soliciting your current employer’s clients while on payroll, that caused the reaction. This whole affair seem to be meaningless.

    I am familiar, through my CRM exploits (, with a “normal” practice of monitoring network activities of departing employees to prevent them from downloading customer/contact related data from corporate data bases.

  7. Interesting points raised by Rhys above. I would also expect each employer to assess the background to the employee leaving the organisation.
    If they were let go because they were genuinely sub-standard, why care if the contact information goes with the incompetent?
    In all other cases – including if they left because of some better opportunity elsewhere, what can be learnt and done to restore/improve the home advantage so that clients and employees will stay with (or be attracted to) the organisation?
    I rank this behaviour along with enforced garden leave periods (which often achieve little in terms of client satisfaction and retention despite great cost) as rather irrational.

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.