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One step forward …

Posted on: Friday 20th of September 2013

Just back from the Digital Enlightenment Forum in Brussels where Ctrl-Shift were one of the plenary speakers.

A number of impressive people were there including Tim Berners Lee, Kim Cameron (of  ‘laws of identity’ fame), Robert Madeline (Director General of DG Connect of the European Commission), Peter Hustinx (the European Data Protection Supervisor) and Wlliam Hoffman (World Economic Forum).

What a difference a year makes! At one level, the Snowden revelations seem to have transformed the personal data landscape forever, raising big doubts about the trustworthiness of many Silicon Valley giants.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, ideas of personal data empowerment that seemed fringe and outlandish a very short time ago are gaining traction rapidly.

The challenge of personal data management …

The conference agenda reflected this with sessions on ‘trustworthy infrastructure for personal data management’, ‘end user control and the business model for personal data management’ and ‘enabling context based user interaction in personal data management’.

So did the contributors. Kim Cameron argued that, especially in the light of the NSA/Snowden revelations, ‘a new social contract’ is emerging around personal data.

Tim Berners-Lee highlighted the way personal data is inexorably moving centre stage. ‘When we pushed into Open Data, we pretty soon got to personal data, and the realisation that my personal data is really valuable.’

Right now, he continued, “we’re in this strange situation where we are all concerned about the value of aggregated data held by companies – when the data is much more valuable to individuals if they can get their data and integrate it themselves. People should be doing personal data management as part of running themselves’. We need a programme to help people do this. The midata movement is an example.’

To realize this goal, he continued, “we need to reinvent the concept of the user agent. We need ‘beneficent’ apps that help us manage and use our data. And we need to be able to distinguish between apps that are trustworthy and apps that are not trustworthy.”

Robert Madelin, Director General of DG Connect, returned to the theme introducing DEF’s yearbook. “How can we develop privacy-enhancing technologies facilitating the process of giving consent to new uses of personal data? Can we establish ‘data banks’ – dedicated digital spaces for the management of the personal information for each data subject?” he asked.

… and of conflicting interests

But we’ve got a long way to go yet.

A common thread underlying the entire conference is the increasingly adversarial stand-off between ‘commerce’ and the ‘privacy lobby’.

On the one hand, many (but not all) large organisations (especially of the Web 2.0 variety) still believe their biggest profit-making opportunities lie in ever more intensive data harvesting: collecting and use ever more data about individuals without their knowledge, understanding or control.

On the other hand,  privacy campaigners and lobbyists are increasingly determined not to let these organizations ‘get away with it’.

Battle lines have been drawn – the biggest battle theatre being proposed changes to EU Data Protection regulation, which has attracted 4000 amendments.

But ongoing trench warfare over the details of data protection regulation doesn’t really benefit anyone. We have to find a ‘win-win’.

A new win-win

At Ctrl-Shift, we think we can see one.

If individuals felt they could trust the people using their data, they would be prepared to volunteer more of it, thereby adding value to existing data uses. That requires a new and different data relationship.

Deploying data as a tool in the hands of the individual via new information services is a huge innovation opportunity – a chance to revolutionise the provision of most service industries.

Empowering people with their data – both within existing relationships and via innovative new services – is potentially a much greater commercial opportunity than trying to suck the value out of peoples’ data. Intriguingly, a few organizations are beginning to see this – while most are still mesmerised by yesterday’s assumptions.

For the new market leaders,  this really is an opportunity to differentiate themselves.