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VIDEO: A Brief History of Data Ownership

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

From cavemen to clay tablets, and databases and dataware, this 10 minute overview provides historical context on how we arrived at today's troubling state of data privacy, and why there is still hope for a better future.


Watch the impact that successive data management technologies have had on people's ability to control their personal information.

The History of Data Ownership


On some level, data has always existed. It was in the chemical composition of the Big Bang, and it has persisted through the electron counts of the first atoms all the way through our DNA today. But all of this data was functionally unobservable until there was something to interpret it - the first mind.


So let’s start there.


The Age of Grunting


How did data exist? As thoughts and non-verbal sounds only.


How easy was it to copy data? Impossible.


How much control did people have over their data? Not applicable.


  • 521,000,000 BCE - The first rudimentary brain appears in the fossil record, and the world is about to get a whole lot more interesting.

  • 252,000,000 BCE - This is the start of the Mesozoic Era, the Age of Dinosaurs. From what modern science knows about life on Earth during this period, it’s reasonable to assume data exchanges involved non-verbal mating displays and territorial markings, and the dinosaur equivalent of, “Back off or I’ll eat you.”

  • 65,000,000 BCE - The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event ends the reign of dinosaurs, and kills off some 70% of all life on Earth. No one knows exactly what happened, because the dinosaurs never got around to inventing long-term data storage.

  • 18,000,000 BCE - The earliest ancestors of the great apes show up in fossil evidence around this time, meaning that it’s reasonable to assume data was being communicated through grunts and gestures that started forming the basis of true language as we know it.

  • 200,000 BCE - Homo Sapiens appear on the scene, bringing with them the first true verbal language. But it would be over 150,000 years before they figured out a way to record these words as written data.

The Age of Symbols


How did data exist? Primarily as spoken language, but with the CEded recording abilities of symbols and pictographs.


How easy was it to copy data? Extremely difficult.


How much control did people have over their data? Almost total control.


  • 40,000 BCE - Humans begin recording data as pictures through cave paintings and petroglyphs, but it would take a long time for these early images to evolve into a true written language

  • 7000 BCE - So-called “proto writing” dates back to this time, with runes and symbols that convey meaning but don’t fit into a full written language system.

  • 5000 BCE - Some cultures start using parchment mCEe from animal hides as their written medium of choice.

  • 3500 BCE - Sumeria and Egypt have full-on written languages by this time, with thoughts carved into tablets of stone and clay.

  • 3000 BCE - Papyrus, an early precursor to paper as we know it, becomes popular in Egypt and other societies throughout the Mediterranean.

  • 2050 BCE - A brewer named Alulu in ancient Sumeria sells some beer to a customer. We know this because the small, clay receipt survives to this day.

  • 1600 BCE - In China, bone, silk, and bamboo are popular choices for writing. Bone and bamboo are fragile, while silk is prohibitively expensive. Still, it takes over 2000 years to find a better solution.