Personal data stores: Are you in control of your digital privacy?

Personal data stores: Are you in control of your digital pri...

10 min read
Institute for Social Innovation

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Would you accept money in exchange for your personal data or app habits? How many apps do you use every day? And how many privacy policies have you read? One of the highest risks for users of the digital world is the lack of control over their digital privacy. Personal data stores are an emerging trend that promise to give individuals power over their own data and digital life. 

In this podcast episode, Liliana Arroyo, Senior Researcher at the Esade Institute for Social Innovation, talks about digital empowerment with David Alexander, CEO of the personal data store Mydex CIC


Liliana Arroyo: Hello listeners and welcome to our podcast. I'm Liliana from the Institute for Social Innovation at Esade. We've been working for more than a year on a report that has been launched recently called My data, my rules. The goal of the report was to find out what the alternatives are to the digital economy as we know it. For that reason, we were looking for public and private initiatives that seek the empowerment of digital citizens. With us today is one of the CEOs we interviewed for this research report. It is my pleasure to introduce you to David Alexander.

David Alexander: Hello, very pleased to be here.

Liliana Arroyo: Thank you for coming, a pleasure to host you. David, tell us about the origins of Mydex, when it all started and why.

David Alexander: We realised that no one was building any tools to help individuals accumulate, store and distribute data and remove friction from their lives. And we thought, "why is that?" We realised the reason for that is that many organisations are gathering lots of data about individuals but for their own purposes, not for the empowerment and betterment of individuals, just for monetisation or data extractivism – a phrase that is growing in popularity. If you're in California, they call it surveillance capitalism and if you're in China, they call it state surveillance.

Many organisations are gathering lots of data about individuals but for their own purposes, not for the empowerment of individuals

Data is being used as a mechanism of control, influence and management of people whereas individuals have no tools. So, we thought, “what do we need to do?” We need to set up an organisation that equips individuals with a set of tools to collect data, store it, redistribute it and which enables them to understand their own lives.

Liliana Arroyo: Could you share with the audience an example that helps us to understand what a personal data store is and what the benefits for users are?

David Alexander: I would start with something that everybody has to do at some point in their life, which is filling in a form. Sometimes the form is simple but, in many cases, it's not. Particularly with the types of things we deal with, like when people try to access public services, apply for a parking permit, get health support or some kind of state benefit. There is a lot of information that users need to put on that form that isn't always easy to get hold of: you may not have a copy, your life might be chaotic, or you just may not have proof of all these sorts of things. So, there's a huge burden on individuals as they have to find that information. A personal data store allows you to accumulate that data digitally in a way that is available to be used to remove form filling. But it also brings with it the proof about that data.

Data is being used as a mechanism of control, influence and management of people whereas individuals have no tools

So, it's not just your bank account number, your property number or some identifier about you. It actually comes from an organisation that says, "we know Liliana lives there. She has lived there for five years, she pays her taxes, her bills are collected" – it comes with proof. So, the organisation that requires proof that you live at a certain address, or that you pay your taxes, can look at that and get this proof automatically by a thing called API, which means computers talking to computers.

You're building an audit trail of evidence of events that prove you are who you say you are, that you're entitled to certain things and that prove assertions. A personal data store builds up trust about your circumstances. It also allows you to add in alongside it only the things that you know, what you like, what you prefer, what your interests are, whether you like to have your deliveries on a Tuesday or a Wednesday... Whatever those things are, you configure a service around something that cannot be encoded by somebody else. 

What it allows you to do is blend that unique data that includes your opinion, preference and views with evidence that can come from elsewhere. That evidence could be proof of your location, bank transactions, credit card transactions, categorisation, and over the top of it, you're adding your context. So, if you looked at your expenditure, for example, or the phone calls you made, you could personally encode that behaviour. For example, you can categorise if you were at a social event, at a work event, travelling to work, buying, or whatever it may be. 

So ultimately, you can set the context of your life over the top of the proof. I think that's a very empowering thing and that's what a personal data store allows you to do, which is under your control for life. 

A personal data store allows you to have what we call a longitudinal record of your existence

As one of my colleagues pointed out when he was talking to a politician who thought he didn't need a personal data store, the politician said, “I've got this fabulous app from my mobile phone company that tells me how much I spend, gives me charts and graphs and itemises calls.” My colleague noticed that it showed only six months of data and asked him: “How long have you had a mobile phone?” He said ten years. Well, “where is the history of your life?”, my colleague asked. He had lost it all when he switched suppliers. That’s a tragedy, isn’t it? 

Imagine that you lose all the research you did because you moved universities. Life is about building experience and evidence. A personal data store allows you to have what we call a longitudinal record of your existence, irrespective of your service provider or where you work, as you've got a copy with evidence that is proof of your existence, capability or experience.

Liliana Arroyo: This possibility to prove and carry the proof with you is amazing. I'm sure that, at this point, the audience might be wondering how the business model of personal data stores is sustainable? 

David Alexander: I'm very pleased you asked that because every time the conversation regarding personal data comes up, nine times out of ten people think it's about monetisation of the data. Mydex does not monetise personal data at all. We see ourselves as a piece of infrastructure, almost like a utility, in as much as we work for you as a private individual, as a citizen, and you get our services entirely free of charge. You have to give nothing up to get those free services. It’s not like Google's model of free email, but in return, they get to mine your email.

We have to fund the operation of our community-interest company through charging organisations what we call subscriptions or connection fees to our platform. It's a one-off connection fee of 60 cents for the organisation to connect to an individual. At 60 cents per customer and 15 cents per year, in mathematical terms this is considered to be a rounding error. So, the economics of running the platform when you've got millions of people on it becomes very sustainable. 

Liliana Arroyo: What’s coming next?

David Alexander: I'm sure you've all heard of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Liliana Arroyo: We don’t know what it is yet, but we have heard...

David Alexander: There's one very clear challenge that's not dissimilar to personal data. At the moment what we are seeing with AI and machine learning is an organisation-centric approach to providing consumer services or understanding citizens. The individual is having to use something like Siri, Google Home or Alexa. And as we all know, they are products that are only controlled by corporations that have their own agenda. I'm not saying it's an evil empire but there are some fantastic cartoons of somebody saying, “Alexa, please, order me some nappies. Yes, we’ll give you Amazon basic. No, I'd like the other ones. No, no, no, we'll give you Amazon basic at half price if you buy those.”

Google Home or Alexa are products that are only controlled by corporations that have their own agenda

Part of our research work is around the idea of something called a personal AI. A thing that understands you, can work with your data, can implement your preferences, and can go and have an argument with Siri, Alexa or any AI. Because otherwise we're going to be out of step again. We're just getting hold of our data and with the data that we're getting hold of, organisations are now setting up algorithms and if a computer says no – or whatever comes out – suddenly we've become disempowered again, because decision-making is happening at a pace. 

I think the other part of it is this mission for a sense of coherence. You get all of this data, you make your life easier, applying for things, being able to see things but actually, by removing the effort, you create some space, white space in which you might want to look at your life and understand it. 

We live in a world where everyone's downloading app, after app, after app. Every one of those apps has a different user experience. We think the experience layer, how it looks and feels is something you should control. So actually, we think apps will be dead. And what will happen is that it will be about content and value-added services being plugged into an independent experience. 

We've been building the framework for that, so that anyone who wants to deliver a diabetes screening service or wants to give you advice on how to get out of a riot, or talk to the taxi driver, or whatever it may be... You can actually get real knowledge delivered to you in an environment where you can know where it's going to appear because you’re in control, and therefore the brand or the state are not controlling your experience, but rather you have your own bubble. We think that independent experiences and personal AI are configurable services.

Liliana Arroyo: This is definitely an important matter. This idea of avoiding fragmentation of our digital lives and getting more insights and better knowledge of how we look in the digital domain. Thank you for sharing all your experience and forward thinking with us, David. And for the audience we recommend that you download the report My data, my rules, where you can find more information about Mydex.

David Alexander: Thank you. It's been an absolute pleasure and I would recommend that your audience reads the report. I think it's a very thorough piece of work with fantastic references and examples and should inspire anybody.

Liliana Arroyo: Wow. Thank you for your kind words. Thank you for listening and see you soon.

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