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Dear LinkedIn (and Facebook and Google): It's My Life. Isn't It My Data?

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Yesterday, I received three identical emails appearing to be from LinkedIn, exhorting me to "click here" to change my password. This worried me for many reasons, not least of which is that I -- along with about 160 million other professionals -- entrust the firm with my data, and it appears they've lost some of it.

After all, if these really are from LinkedIn, they waited five days to recommend I reset my password, suggesting they're more worried about potential fallout than my data. Nor did they say a word about their massive security breach -- losing upwards of six million user passwords due to what is widely considered criminally weak cyber-security -- leaving it to me to figure out the broader implications.

The era of Big Data is upon us. Unfortunately, it's marked by Big Screw Ups -- like LinkedIn's.

Every time you're on a website, you create a record of your actions. Each time a digital device is used, a trail of user-generated digital breadcrumbs is created. Many people also provide personal information of their own accord -- posting more about their day on Facebook than they even tell their spouses.

This is the source of Big Data. From sensors in your phone or embedded in products you use; from social media sites, digital photos, GPS signals and transactional records. In fact, so much data is being gathered that 90 percent of the data in the world today has been collected in the last two years alone.

Yet security breaches -- ranging from the 75 million Sony users hacked in April to the 10 million or so people affected by last week's breaches at LinkedIn, Last.fm (CBS) and eHarmony -- are commonplace.

So, what happens when customers take control of their data?

Today, the consequences for mismanaging customer data are negligible. There are no legal penalties or regulations. Companies' responsibilities are to investors -- not their customers, who are a resource to be exploited. And investors don't seem to care -- LinkedIn's share price actually rose in the days following the breach.

Smart customers are awakening to the fact that companies use the data they generate for financial gain. This is forgivable to most -- if companies would only use the information to make customers' lives easier. But far too often, they don't.

And as customers get "smarter" -- with digitally-enabled access to product information, pricing and competitive options, and the ability get whatever they want at anytime from anywhere -- they are going to want control over their own data.

"We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings, and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it."

Chris Locke wrote these words for the 1999 book, The Cluetrain Manifesto, and Doc Searls -- one of the co-authors - uses them to explain ProjectVRM, a research and development project of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, which intends to spur the development of tools that help individuals take control of their data in the marketplace.

Doc believes that customer reach will only exceed vendor grasp when individuals acquire the tools for the job. Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) gives individuals who recognize their value as customers -- and wish to better define their relationships with the companies that serve them -- the tools, software and ability to do so to.

In other words, customers will be able to access, manage and earn money from the data that describes their lives and -- if they choose -- forbid others from using it. The technology exists to make data portable. The profit incentive exists for venture capitalists to fund aggressive start-ups who see the immense potential of giving customers full control over their data.

Most importantly, the majority of established companies don't use customer data to benefit their customers; they sell instead of serve. Why can't they do both?

A radical solution: use customer data to benefit your customers.

In Smart Customers, Stupid Companies: Why Only Intelligent Companies Will Thrive, and How to Be One of Them, Bruce Kasanoff and I identify four disruptive forces dramatically changing the ground rules for business. One of those forces, Pervasive Memory, describes the personal details that end up in corporate databases every time we interact through digital devices. Pervasive Memory can make companies smarter about their customers.

The race is on -- to make the vast and growing volume of data that defines Pervasive Memory easily accessible, as well as understandable. The potential to leverage customer data to benefit individuals is staggering. Companies who put customers first will supplant data-leaking firms who mine customer data for profit regardless of the interests of their customers.

Think of the benefits: You can anticipate customer needs. You can operate in ways that save your customers money and time. You can provide better products and better information. You can answer strategic questions to unlock the doors to your future: What do customers want to know? Where are the best opportunities for innovation? What services could competitors bring to our industry, and should we do it first?

Alternatively, companies can continue to hoard customer data, just as they hoarded pricing, distribution channel and manufacturing information -- until the Internet came along. Those who wish to thrive will get ahead of the curve to become more intelligent, by using data to make customers' lives easier. Inevitably someone will. There's a huge opportunity for entities that are 100 percent on the side of customers, making it possible for customers to control, share -- or take back -- all of the data related to their activities.

In closing... Dear LinkedIn (and Facebook and Google): I suggest you rethink your approach to the data increasingly surrounding your customers -- while finding ways to make our lives easier, and taking much better care of our personal information.

After all, if we can't trust you to manage our data -- we'll find someone who can.