Data Ownership is Not Dispositive: Data Access Conflicts in Public-Private Contracting Relationships
When firms contract with government agencies to provide services, they regularly assert that some subset of their work is proprietary and confidential. At the same time, public agencies are also subject to transparency requirements. Within the State of Washington, agencies are subject to a strongly transparent Public Records Act, the state's freedom of information law, under which members of the public are granted access to a large share of government information by request. Public agencies also seek access to firms' data to advance accountability, equity, and oversight objectives. In both respects, data access is constrained in practice when firms assert it to be trade secret.
Specifically, I analyze two public-private data sharing relationships as a site of contestation over data access and control: (i) the contract between the transportation agencies behind the One Regional Card for All (ORCA) fare card in Seattle’s Puget Sound region and their vendor Vix Inc., and (ii) the would-be contract between King County Metro and Lyft Inc in support of a subsidized expansion of transit hub access. I locate my analysis of these contested claims within a broader scholarship of ambiguity and political struggle in the distinction between "public" and "private." Building on theory that always understands these terms to be asserting normative (rather than descriptive) claims about the world, I explore how data ownership emerged as a dominant rationale in assertions about how data should be made available or controlled. I observe that while claiming data ownership is locally understood to be a means of asserting control over data, in practice it is not dispositive of outcomes with respect to how it is accessed and shared. This finding has implications for recent policy proposals in favor of data ownership as a means of advancing digital rights and raises questions about the effectiveness of that approach.
Meg Young is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell Tech's Digital Life Initiative. Her work applies ethnographic and design methods to understand government use of information technologies on-the-ground, with a focus on how to make proprietary systems more accountable to the public. Her current project examines government procurement of automated decision systems. Meg's work to date reports on fieldwork with public agencies, advocates, and activists on data governance, surveillance, privacy, open records, data ownership, public-private partnerships, public engagement, and data trusts. This work has been published in ACM FACCT*, Big Data & Society, CHI, Ethics & Information Technology, and the Berkeley Technology and Law Journal. She is the co-founder of the Critical Platform Studies Group, a non-profit that partners with civil rights groups to pursue algorithmic accountability through participatory design. Meg completed her doctorate in the Information School at the University of Washington in July 2020. She was previously a Research Associate at Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, and has an MSc in Information Science and a BA in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Michigan.