My data, my rules?

Written by: Tim Green Posted: 01/06/2020

BL67_Personal data illoEvery corporation wants to harvest and scrutinise your personal data. But what if you could take back control and share it on your terms, Or even sell it? 

In 2012 there was outrage when US retailer Target posted a maternity pack to a young girl. The company had deduced from her buying habits that she was pregnant. But it turned out that the teenager had not told her parents. Target knew she was expecting. Mum and Dad didn’t. 

The incident says something fundamental about the digital world we live in. Corporations have bought in to the idea that ‘data is the new oil’. They want to know all about us, and the consequences can be frightening. 

For some people, this brand of ‘surveillance capitalism’ is too much. They advocate going ‘dark’: installing a VPN, buying a feature phone, using cash. 

However, for most of us, this is not realistic. After all, we love the convenience of the digital lifestyle. Can’t we have that without the creepiness?

A number of technology thinkers and startups believe we can. They are working on an alternative model that preserves privacy but doesn’t restrict the data sharing that underpins the digital economy. 

The proposition is simple: give people a way to curate their own data, so they can share it – or even sell it – on their terms with organisations they trust.

Solid start

This idea is niche for now. But some supporters are highly visible. Take the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee: he’s working on a web platform known as Solid that gives users the ability to keep their data in a personal store called a POD. They can decide who’s allowed to see it. 

Announcing the project, Berners-Lee wrote: “Solid changes the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value. As we’ve all discovered, this hasn’t been in our best interests... With Solid, you will have far more personal agency over data – you decide which apps can access it.”

While Berners-Lee and others wrestle with big questions, startups including Digi-me, Meeco and Datacoup – which are sometimes known as PIMS (personal information management services) – have already launched live services based on a similar premise. 

Digi-me offers an app that users can connect to a large number of sources via their phone – email, Facebook, Spotify, Fitbit. The app uses this data to build a real-time picture of the user. 

But here’s the important bit: any organisation can, with consent, interrogate this data to offer personalised services or speed up administrative processes. But crucially, all of this processing takes place on the device. The organisation doesn’t keep any data.

Julian Ranger, Executive Chairman and Founder of Digi-me, gives an example. “Say I want a car loan, and the lender wants to know my credit worthiness,” he says. “Traditionally, that process could take weeks. Now the lender can analyse my data to make a calculation on my device. 

“But the app will only share back the score, not the details of my financial history. I’m happy; and the lender is delighted because it has the information it needs – in seconds – with none of the legal or technical worries of holding the data.”

This example shows how Digi-me expects to make money. It will take a small fee for enabling the processing of the data – a fee that is vanishingly small compared with the existing costs of processing something like a car loan. 

A question of trust

One challenge is to overcome the cynicism of the general public. Surveys show that data trust has been trashed. In a 2019 study, for example, the UK Open Data Institute (ODI) revealed that 30% of people trust central government to use personal data ethically, but for social media companies, it’s just 5%. 

Data experts wonder how companies offering a new model can overcome this suspicion. “We already give away our personal data,” says Mel Pardoe, Data Protection Officer at BDO Jersey. “We sign away rights to our data privacy in return for services all the time – with ‘take it or leave it’ terms and conditions that we all sign up to. It seems to be counterintuitive to say we can ‘take back control’ of our private data by selling or sharing it.”

Sandra Lawrence, Executive Director at Collas Crill Compliance, agrees – although she believes people are hungry for a new approach. “I asked my colleagues about this idea and they were all intrigued,” she says. “But could it just add another layer of risk? How can we be sure that we’re not surrendering our data to a new layer of intermediaries?”
Other observers flag up a different problem. They point out that some organisations have no choice but to store sensitive information. 

Huw Thomas, Counsel at Carey Olsen, says: “It’s a nice idea, letting individuals control their data. But it ignores that some organisations are compelled by law to keep it – for medical reasons, to protect against money laundering and so on.”

BL67_Personal data illo2Cash incentive

Although there is obvious disquiet among consumers about data harvesting, the challenge is to turn that disquiet into action. To encourage them, some PIMS offer a simple incentive: cash.

Companies such as CitizenMe and UBDI have built apps that let people curate their data and then share it with brands for market research. When they do, users earn points they can trade for goods and services. The companies aggregate the information, so no personal data is shared. 

It’s pretty radical. But some proponents go further. US tech guru Jaron Lanier argues that everyone should get paid for their data, all the time. In his manifesto, A Blueprint for a Better Digital Society, Lanier says that personal data should be re-defined as a legal asset. 

He writes: “Silicon Valley values companies at a trillion dollars – and the value comes from our data. It’s absurd to say it’s not worth anything. We estimate a small family could in the very near term make $20,000 as year.” 

Critics point out obvious flaws with the concept. It’s been estimated that Facebook’s annual profits equate to around $33 per user per year. Quite a gap to $20,000. And there’s another issue. If data is an asset, how can we be sure who owns it? 

Ownership issues

This is the sticking point for Jeni Tennison, CEO of the Open Data Institute. “Data is rarely about a single individual,” she says. “For example, my DNA says something about my family. My social media feed is also about my friends.

“There are also scenarios where it is impractical to get consent. If you are taking satellite photographs to improve land productivity, for example, can you really ask the consent of every farmer? So, thinking in terms of individual data ownership is not the best approach.”

That said, seeing data as collectively owned might itself present new opportunities. Richard Field, Partner at Appleby in Guernsey, gives a healthcare example.

“I can imagine how people with certain medical conditions might in future realise the value of their data,” he says. “They might team up to share or even sell it to pharmaceutical companies. It would raise new questions about the best way to organise these groups, but the potential is there.”

Katryna Dow, CEO of personal data startup Meeco, agrees. She believes it’s inevitable that people will take back control of their data, and that the outcome will be a kind of revolution.

“Big data is amazing for detecting big patterns, crowd behaviour and so on,” she says. “But when you’re trying to serve this particular person right now, it doesn’t work. 

“Giving back data to customers is the key to unlocking that. When this happens, everyone will have their own micro-economy, in a sense. And the collective result of all these micro-efficiencies will be huge.”

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