By Nicole Reineke, Distinguished Engineer, Dell Technologies
The internet has always grappled with a fundamental tension, which Stewart Brand, founder of the Long Now Foundation, summed up perfectly nearly 40 years ago: Information wants to be free because networks make it constantly cheaper to share; but information also wants to be expensive because it is so valuable.
Reconciling these two forces has always been a problem, but in the last few years, the issue has become existential. The most valuable information of all is personal. People value information about their finances, web browsing, and location. Yet the commercial internet thrives on sharing it.
Cloud computing accelerated this era of sharing, and now the Internet of Things (IoT) is taking it to warp speed. These technologies have bought us immeasurable improvements in productivity and convenience. They save time, money, and, in some cases, lives. But they also have a dark side. People are generating more data about themselves faster than ever before, and they don’t feel in control of who has it or what those people are using it for. How do we fix this?
A New Kind of Data Silo
It’s time to revive the idea of the data silo, but with a twist. Businesses have spent years erasing the walls between different collections of data to exchange information more easily. If we can turn people into data silos, where they retain control over all of their own personal information and how others use it, we can redress the data imbalance. We can restore the idea of data as a form of personal property.
What would that look like? How can we restore control over personal data without abandoning the myriad benefits afforded by the cloud, IoT, and big data? We must begin by creating personal firewalls that enable people to control what data leaves their silos and under what conditions.
This would empower people to choose what information to make available, to whom, and for how long. They would no longer gift information permanently, but would instead grant organizations access to it for a specific period. That information would not reside in any third-party database. Instead, those with access would store a pointer to that personal information. Referencing information from that pointer would be contingent on the owner’s permission, which they could rescind at any time.
Personal data silos that give people control over their own information create new possibilities. For example, they could begin charging organizations for that information, creating extra sources of personal revenue.
They would also help avoid some of the egregious data breaches that we’ve seen in the last few years. Limiting the data that organizations can collect would restrict its passage into unprotected cloud databases. People could avoid giving up sensitive financial information such as credit card numbers that hackers then pilfer and sell on the dark web. Breaches would still happen, but the information in those stolen data sets wouldn’t be so damaging. Peoples’ lives wouldn’t end up on Pastebin.
Creating that kind of privacy-conscious, consumer-centric silo is a daunting challenge. One of the biggest hurdles is consumer education. The structure, scope, and implications of personal data are complex and difficult to understand, even for technology professionals who do this for a living. It’s sobering to consider on International Data Privacy Day that Pew Charitable Trusts has found 59 percent of Americans don’t understand what companies do with the data they collect. Yet to make decisions about the data in their silos, consumers must be aware.
A personal data silo system must convey this information in a digestible way. It must also explain the effect of withholding information from companies in areas including healthcare, financial services, and public utilities. These and other sectors aggregate that data to elevate the common good, in areas including public health and energy conservation.
The design and deployment of personal data silos call for more than technological expertise. It requires ethical and sociological research to help us understand how to respect personal information when used at scale. Those are difficult considerations with parameters that shift across different use cases.
The hurdles to creating data silos are not just technical and ethical. They’re logistical, economic, and political. This kind of initiative would need co-operation from a host of stakeholders, all of whom have different agendas. It would need to support various commercial and technology models with many moving parts. Many of these models will conflict with each other.
Despite these challenges, a world of personal data silos is within our reach. We have standards bodies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology that will help. Strong partnerships between government, academia, and technology organizations will move us a long way in this direction.
We must also find incentives for companies to participate. Many of them have entrenched business models that have relied on the unfettered use of personal data for years. If a company is already selling your browsing history, why would it want to play ball?
A personal data silo initiative must be a win-win for consumers and corporations alike. It must afford new revenue opportunities for companies if they are to jump on board. One possible incentive could be higher data quality. Data accessed with permission is likely to be more up to date. It would reflect a person’s current activities and interests far more than a digital exhaust with a low signal-to-noise ratio. That would be a valuable asset to companies constantly striving for better intelligence about consumer preferences.
Perhaps the biggest benefit will come over the long term. Years of playing fast and loose with user data have left it bruised and in need of care. Pew found that almost eight in 10 people don’t trust companies to admit making mistakes with their personal data, and seven in 10 don’t trust them to use their data in ways they’re comfortable.
Personal data silos will provide a powerful platform to begin rebuilding that trust. They’ll also help us to navigate the doublethink that has permeated the internet for so long. Yes, information can be valuable. And yes, we can still set it free.