Thursday, 30 January 2014

P2P Goes Cloud-to-Cloud

In Part 2 of my response to Google's 'computers vs people' meme, I explained that humans can win the war for economic control of their data by transacting on peer-to-peer marketplaces. That's because the P2P platforms don't derive their revenue primarily by using their users' data as bait to attract advertising revenue. Instead, they enable many participants to transact directly with each other in return for relatively small payments towards the platforms' direct operational costs, leaving the lion's share of each transaction with the parties on either side. This post covers some technological developments which move the P2P front line deep into Big Data territory.

Perhaps the ultimate way to avoid Big Data's free ride on the ad revenue derived from your data is to cut your reliance on the World Wide Web itself. After all, the Web is just the 'human-readable' network of visible data that sits on the Internet - just one of many other uses. As I've mentioned previously, having your own pet 'open data spider' that gathers information based on your data without disclosing it would transform the advertiser's challenge from using Big Data tools to target you with their advertising, to enabling their product data to be found by your spider as and when you need it.

But that would not necessarily solve the problems that arise where your data has to be shared.

Fortunately, all but the most hardcore privacy lobbyists have finally moved beyond debating the meaning of "privacy" and "identity" to realise two important things. First, 'personal data' (data that identifies you, either on its own or in combination with other data) is just one type of user-related data we should be concerned about controlling in a Big Data world. Second, it's critical to our very survival that we share as much data about ourselves as possible to the right recipient in the right context. The focus is now firmly on the root cause of all the noise: lack of personal control over our own data. 

Perhaps the leading exponents of this turnaround have been those involved in the Privacy by Design initiative. As explained in their latest report, they've become convinced by a range of pragmatic commercial and technological developments which together produce a 'personal data ecosystem' with you at the centre. You are now able to store your data in various 'personal cloud' services. 'Semantic data interchange' enables your privacy preferences to be attached to your data in machine-readable form so that machines can process it accordingly. Contractually binding 'trust frameworks' ensure data portability between personal clouds, and enable you to quickly grant others restricted access to a subset of your data for a set time and revoke permission at will. The advent of multiple 'persistent accountable pseudonyms' supports your different identities and expectations of privacy in different contexts, allowing for a lawful degree of anonymity yet making your identity ascertainable for contractual purposes. You can also anonymise your own data before sharing it, or stipulate anonymity in the privacy preferences attached to it, so your data can be processed in the aggregate for your own benefit and/or that of society.

All that's missing is a focus on determining the right value in each context. I mean, it should be a simple matter to attach a condition to your data that you are to be paid a certain amount of value whenever Big Data processes it. But 'how much'? And are you to be 'paid' in hard currency, loyalty points or cost savings?   

The ability to put a value on your data in any scenario is not as far away as you might think. The Privacy by Design report notes that the personal data ecosystem (PDE) is "explicitly architected as a network of peer-to-peer connectivity over private personal channels that avoid both information silos and unnecessary “middlemen” between interactions."

Sound familiar?

As explained in the previous post, P2P marketplaces already enable you to balance your privacy and commercial interests by setting a value on your data that is appropriate to the specific context. Your account on each platform - whether it's eBay or Zopa or one of many others - is effectively a 'personal cloud' through which you interact with other users' personal clouds to sell/buy stuff or lend/borrow money on service terms that leave most of the transaction value with you and the other participants.

The wider developments in semantic data interchange, trust frameworks etc., that are noted in the Privacy by Design report enable these clouds or marketplaces to be linked with other personal clouds, either directly or through the 'personal information managers',  as envisaged in the Midata programme

Ultimately, we could use one or two personal information managers to host and control access to our data and derive income from the use of that data by transacting on different P2P platforms dedicated to discrete activities. Not only would this make it simpler to understand and verify whether the use of our data is appropriate in each context, but it would also enable us to diversify our sources of value - a concept that is just as important in the data world as it is in financial services. You don't want all your data and income streams (eggs) in the one cloud (basket).

The Privacy by Design report claims that "all these advancements mean that Big Privacy will produce a paradigm shift in privacy from an "organisation-centric" to a balanced model which is far more user-centric".

I agree, but would add a cautionary note.

In the context of the 'computers vs people' meme, I'm concerned by references in the report to "cloud-based autonomous agents that can cooperate to help people make even more effective data sharing decisions". Has Privacy by Design been unwittingly captured by the Singularity folk?

I don't think so. Such 'cloud-based agents' are ultimately a product of human design and control. Whether the technologists at the Singularity University choose to believe it or not, humans are in fact dictating each successive wave of automation. 

At any rate, we should take advantage of technology to keep things personal rather than submit to the Big Data machines.

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