A century ago, the average person had almost zero documented personal data. Perhaps a birth certificate and an identification card. If they were wealthy, some legal documents about the property they owned. But generally speaking, none of that paperwork was particularly dense and it certainly did not require an organization system to keep track of it.
How things have changed. Now there is everything from medical records to tax records, transcripts, passwords, digital photos, social security cards, health data, rental agreements, volumes of email correspondence, bills that come in every medium there is, and the list could go on forever. The scary thing is that that list does not include the mountain of digital data we create and never see. But you can be sure Facebook knows your shopping habits, who your best friends are, where you want to go on vacation, and what kind of dog you have.
The larger our data trails become, the harder they are to manage and the easier that it is for corporations to profit on information that should be owned by its author, that being you. If you have ever wondered if there is a better way when asked to pay for copies of your own medical records, there just might be.
But the solution is a heady one and there are some well-funded special interests that are perfectly happy with the way things are. So the bridge to tomorrow is still fraught with uncertainty. I talked with one of the leaders in the movement to give individuals control of their personal data, Julian Ranger, Founder and CEO of UK-based startup digi.me. Here is the conversation we had about reshaping the way data exists in our digital world.
Q: To what degree are people not in control of their data today? And generally speaking, how does that effect people's lives?
People are not at all in control of their data today – it is fragmented across the web, unavailable to them to see whenever they want, often out of date, and sold without their permission to companies who use it to track invasively market to them. The effects are many, notably a loss of control over how and by whom personal data is used and how accurate it is, inconvenience from being unable to reuse information or data sets (for example when filling out insurance forms) and an inability to benefit personally from something that belongs to them. At digi.me we believe that your data is yours, that it is extremely powerful when put together, and that individuals and businesses will benefit from a world where data is better controlled.
Q: Are there market forces that are incentivized to counteract a move towards giving people more control over their own data?
Ranger: There are big companies and the ad tech industry as a whole that doesn’t want to hand back control to individuals. Using personal data is what their business models are based on, but their hands are going to be forced on several fronts – which ultimately forms a great opportunity to treat customers and their data better.
In terms of regulation, new laws such as the European GDPR, which will take effect in 2018 and effect not just European citizens but anyone doing business there, will deliberately reframe control back to the user, requiring permissioned consent only for a specified purpose, among other things. This will mean data cannot be sold by third-parties, which will kill the whole tracking sector. But businesses still need data to innovate and develop, which is why tracking exists in the first place, despite the data it produces being up to 30 percent inaccurate. So businesses need to find a new way to get this data, which digi.me stands ready to do it in a transparent and permissioned manner that brings benefits to both users and businesses; a true win-win situation.
The other major force is the consumer preference that everything be “free”. But there is growing evidence that people would be willing to pay for services they now get for free, such as Facebook, if it stops selling their data. There is a good reason why hundreds of millions of people are now using ad-blockers. They stop the wealth of ads which are invasive, annoying and eat into data plans, so this industry is being strangled from the roots as well – and again needs change.
Q: In a very futuristic way, how far can personal data go? What is the utopia you are working towards?
Ranger: Personal data is incredibly powerful and has no limits. We are producing and will continue to produce more personal information that will record any aspect of our increasingly digital life. If we can harness that power and bring all of a user’s data together under their control so they can gain greater insight from having it all in one place as well as be able to share it on their terms for personalised benefits and rewards, then we can change the world. Imagine having access to any of your data, all the time, anywhere. Instantly show any doctor, anywhere, your medical history. Want to know when you could afford a new car? Ping your data to your bank, who will help you plan and show where you could make savings. Anything you need, always, with minimal hassle and maximum personal benefit. We call this the Internet of Me – where the user is at the centre of, and in control, of their connected life.
Q: What can digi.me do today and what is it working to accomplish in the next five years?
Ranger: Today you can gather your social media data from all the main networks in one place, with the data normalised so you can easily search through all of it, create new collections of content complete with original comments and likes, and share as you want, among other things. Later this year health and financial data streams will be added, plus our unique permissioned access system that will allow sharing with businesses in a mutual value exchange. Shopping and other streams will follow soon, with our ultimate goal being to be a platform in the Internet of Me ecosystem that others will be able to build personal data-sharing apps on as well.
Q: Personal data is not forefront in most people's minds; is it a goal of digi.me's to make people aware of this issue?
Ranger: Absolutely – realising our full Internet of Me vision depends on the public at large having a revelation about why their personal data is so valuable and what is happening to it at the moment, and being inspired to take back control of it themselves. As we see with the likes of ad blockers, people are waking up to how their privacy is being violated and taking action, and the new legislation mentioned previously will help change the fundamentals of what is currently a system that works against individuals. We are spreading our Internet of Me vision far and wide through our existing 400K user base, thousands of followers on social media and our Internet of Me forum, which is a popular site for debating the many and varying issues around personal data control – and what is possible if we change the status quo.