net.wars: Power to the People

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 19 November 2010

We talk often about the fact that ten years of effort – lawsuits, legislation, technology – on the part of the copyright industries has made barely a dent in the amount of material available online as unauthorized copies. We talk less about the similar situation that applies to privacy despite years of best efforts by Privacy International, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open Rights Group, No2ID, and newcomer Big Brother Watch. The last ten years have built Google, and Facebook, and every organization now craves large data stores of personal information that can be mined.

Wendy M Grossman

Meanwhile, governments are complacent, possibly because they have subpoena power. It's been a long decade.

"Information is the oil of the 1980s," wrote Thomas McPhail and Brenda McPhail in 1987 in an article discussing the politics of the International Telecommunications Union, and everyone seems to take this encomium seriously.

William Heath, who spent his early career founding and running Kable, a consultancy specializing in government IT, has been saying for many months now that there's a gathering wave of change. (The question he focused on for a lot of that time: how to create the ideal government for the digital era) His idea is that the *new* new thing is technologies to give us back control and up-end the current situation in which everyone behaves as if they own all the information we give them. But it's their data only in exactly the same way that taxpayers' money belongs to the government. They call it customer relationship management; Heath calls the data we give them volunteered personal information and proposes instead vendor relationship management.

Always one to put his effort where his mouth is (Heath helped found the Open Rights Group, the Foundation for Policy Research, and the Dextrous Web as well as Kable), Heath has set up not one, but two companies. The first, Ctrl-Shift, is a research and advisory businesses to help organizations adjust and adapt to the power shift. The second, Mydex, a platform now being prototyped in partnership with the Department of Work and Pensions and several UK councils (PDF). Set up as a community interest company, Mydex is asset-locked, to ensure that the company can't suddenly reverse course and betray its customers and their data.

The key element of Mydex is the personal data store, which is kept under each individual's own control. When you want to do something – renew a parking permit, change your address with a government agency, rent a car – you interact with the remote council, agency, or company via your PDS.

Independent third parties verify the data you present. To rent a car, for example, you might present a token from the vehicle licensing bureau that authenticates your age and right to drive and another from your bank or credit card company verifying that you can pay for the rental. The rental company only sees the data you choose to give it.

It's Heath's argument that such a setup would preserve individual privacy and increase transparency while simultaneously saving companies and governments enormous sums of money.

"At the moment there is a huge cost of trying to clean up personal data," he says. "There are 60 to 200 organisations all trying to keep a file on you and spending money on getting it right. If you chose, you could help them." The biggest cost, however, he says, is the lack of trust on both sides. People vanish off the electoral rolls or refuse to fill out the census forms rather than hand over information to government; governments treat us all as if we were suspected criminals when all we're trying to do is claim benefits we're entitled to.

You can certainly see the potential. Ten years ago, when they were talking about "joined-up government", MPs dealing with constituent complaints favored the notion of making it possible to change your address (for example) once and have the new information propagate automatically throughout the relevant agencies. Their idea, however, was a huge, central data store; the problem for individuals (and privacy advocates) was that centralized data stores tend to be difficult to keep accurate.

"There is an oft-repeated fallacy that existing large organizations meant to serve some different purpose would also be the ideal guardians of people's personal data," Heath says. "I think a purpose-created vehicle is a better way." Give everyone a PDS, and they can have the dream of changing their address only once – but maintain control over where it propagates.

There are, as always, key questions that can't be answered at the prototype stage. First and foremost is the question of whether and how the system can be subverted. Heath's intention is that we should be able to set our own terms and conditions for their use of our data – up-ending the present situation again. We can hope – but it's not clear that companies will see it as good business to differentiate themselves on the basis of how much data they demand from us when they don't now.

At the same time, governments who feel deprived of "their" data can simply pass a law and require us to submit it.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).