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Whose Data Is It Anyway?

Frankly, it’s not a question I thought about – till now.

Join Facebook or any social networking service and you may be turning over control of mounds of personal information as the price for using sites that put you in touch with the world.  Information has gotten so valuable that you can’t buy a loaf of bread without being asked to fork over your phone number or email.

Home was a relative safe haven.  That’s because most buildings are still in the technological dark ages where paper and fax and voice hold sway. But that’s all changing, and High Rise Society threatens to become the newest battleground in the fight over data control.  A little noticed, recently handed-down decision, bring into focus the question: Who owns you building’s data – which by extension is nothing but a conglomeration of your data and that of your fellow residents.

At least one company says it’s not the building or any of you that have rights to the stuff, but the entity that does the gathering.

Cooper Square Realty manages lots of co-ops in the City, and like most other residential managers provides monthly financial statements. For an additional fee, it offers its clients an internet based service that gives daily updates of residents’ accounts, including billings and payments, late charges and fees.  The building gets enhanced information and it gets a new revenue stream. Capitalism at work.

In comes Building Link, an independent web service provider.  It sends round emails to board members of Cooper-managed buildings, saying its system is compatible with the third-party software that Cooper uses, and claiming it can provide a similar set of data, that’s even better because it automatically adds or deletes owner profiles.

But it’s our information and we don’t have to give it to anyone else, Cooper tells the judge. The argument goes like this: Sure all the data about fees and maintenance and assessments and everything else come direct from residents in the buildings we manage, but it belongs to us, not the boards because we’re the ones who collect it, and process it, and upload it, and without our involvement it would be useless tidbits.

So who’s right?

The question hasn’t been answered. If I were you, I’d start thinking about it now, especially because the way the system is set up, it’s not you, but the board that may be deciding what to do with you information. Maybe data generated by an individual resident or even a single building isn’t worth very much to anyone, but when data from hundreds of buildings is pooled by the companies that manage them, the stuff becomes a potentially rich source – and will become even richer as new informational nuggets — from the packages you order to your very identity (via photos and thumb prints) – are mined.

That’s why the time is ripe to focus on, and specify who owns what, and how the stuff can and can’t be used — before it’s too late.

For both sides of the story, see: Cooper Square Realty, Inc. v. Building Link, LLC., 2010 NY Slip Op. 30197(U), Jan. 27, 2010, Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. Click here, and insert the case date and number under Search By Citation.

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