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?

  • 1
    From a "privacy" point of view, your Doctor is not entitled to divulgate to third parties the newly discovered info regarding your health. Jun 20, 2019 at 14:06
  • 3
    Much 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
    Jun 20, 2019 at 15:35
  • 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
    Jun 21, 2019 at 7:39
  • 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
    Jun 22, 2019 at 19:48
  • i agree with @Conifold a better paradigm for what you mean is 'privacy'
    – user38026
    Jun 22, 2019 at 19:54

2 Answers 2


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.


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?"

  • 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? Jun 20, 2019 at 15:49
  • 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
    Jun 21, 2019 at 0:39
  • @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? Jun 21, 2019 at 20:36
  • 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
    Jun 22, 2019 at 3:32
  • 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
    Jun 22, 2019 at 3:35

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