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Data safes will give users control over their data

Belgian computer scientist tells Computer Weekly how people can regain control of their online personal information

People need to regain control of their own data, instead of it being in the hands of the tech giants, according to Belgian professor of computer science Ruben Verborgh, who is working with World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee on Solid, a set of standards for personal “digital data safes” to be set up.

Companies such as Facebook and Netflix, but also Pinterest and Google, are keen to collect as much data as possible about users in order to steer their behaviour accordingly, with the ultimate goal of being as interesting as possible for advertisers.

Recently, a documentary called The Social Dilemma became available on Netflix. In it, a number of key people prominent in the early days of today’s tech giants talk about their concerns.

Verborgh, professor of semantic web technology at Ghent University and researcher at Imec, has seen the documentary, but is disappointed by it. “It was 10 years late,” he said. “Although it may still contain shocking information for the general public, this knowledge has been there for a long time.

“But the documentary shows very well that we have now lost control of our personal and public data. We can no longer decide for ourselves what to do with it and how we want to obtain information.”

Verborgh added: “Tim freed up information with the web. No matter where you are or what device you’re using, you can access the information on the web. We want to do the same with Solid.”

When Berners-Lee announced the Solid project, he announced on his website that the current web had become “a driver of inequality and division”. He doesn’t like the fact that his invention is now ruled by a handful of tech giants who demand personal information from users in exchange for their services. In his view, Solid needs to “redirect” the web to his original vision of a democratic and equal network for the exchange of information.

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Verborgh believes companies’ “data collection frenzy” hinders innovation. “It also encourages unfair competition,” he told Computer Weekly. “After all, companies that do have an innovative idea often don’t make progress because they lack data. Large companies such as Facebook collect all this data, but do not use it for innovation.”

Writing in current affairs magazine Knack, Verborgh called this socially and legally undesirable competition. “Here is a simple example that illustrates this: can you name one innovation that Facebook or Twitter has implemented over the past five years?” he wrote. “Perhaps not. These companies don’t innovate significantly because they already have so much data.”

And it is that collective frenzy that can be contained with Solid, he added. “Because then, companies can make use of data and information, but they don’t have to collect and store it all themselves.”

People often simply do not know that their digital identity has value, or they don’t really care. Laziness and inattention also cause people to hand over valuable information about themselves. Not only do we run the risk of becoming a victim of cyber crime, but we also gradually lose our own will. “Very few people know that the data they post on social media often becomes the property of the platform,” said Jelle Wieringa, security advocate at KnowBe4, an organisation that trains people in security awareness.

“Such a social media platform can do whatever it wants with it, in accordance with the conditions that are often blindly accepted by the user. Many people don’t think it will happen to them anyway, but because of the huge amounts of information they receive every day, they have become complacent and inattentive.

“They simply accept terms and conditions that they don’t even read and post information on social media that can be used against them. The average web user does not realise that they, too, can become a victim and when they do realise it, the question is whether they have enough knowledge to recognise attacks and respond to them safely.”

Virtual data vault

That is why it is important to regain control over your data, said Verborgh. “And control doesn’t mean that everyone constantly has to decide for themselves whether to pay for a particular service with money or their data,” he said. “Compare it to investing. There are people who like to invest themselves, but there are also people who leave that to their bank. The fact that you have a choice – that’s what it’s all about.”

At the beginning of this year, Innoviris, the Brussels Institute for Research and Innovation, invested €500,000 in Digita, a Belgian startup working on a virtual data vault based on Solid. “We are working on a technology that makes it possible to set up a worldwide personal data web,” said Tom Haegemans, a founder of Digita and professor of policy informatics at KU Leuven.

“In such a personal data web, everyone owns a virtual data vault in which you get a uniform overview of all your data, even if it is actually stored at different companies. With such a virtual data vault, you can easily retrieve your data, manage access to it and keep it up to date.”

Collecting frenzy

Solid is intended to correct the distorted balance of power in the digital world, so that users once again determine what happens to their personal information and where that information is stored. According to Verborgh, the project offers benefits for both users and companies.

“Innovation often requires data, and collecting all that relevant data is a challenge for many organisations,” he said. “With Solid, this becomes a lot easier, because you no longer have to waste energy on collecting, because in the end you never have enough data.”

A pleasant side-effect of this is that privacy is much less of an issue, and according to Verborgh, privacy is not at the heart of Solid. “Privacy does not really have anything to do with it,” he said. “It is collateral damage from the wrong business model. There is no need to focus on privacy, because you cannot fix privacy as such, because it is one-sided. By giving people control over their own data, privacy improves by itself. It is a consequence of a better business model.”

The Flemish government is now working on a data utility company, based on Solid. Among other things, the company is working on a new way of dealing with citizens’ data. Berners-Lee applauded the Flemish government’s efforts. “You understand,” he told Flemish business paper De Tijd, “the government understands the concept, and Ghent University and the Imec research centre are at the top.”

Verborgh added: “We need to innovate in a different way. Instead of collecting as much data as possible, we need to learn to work with the data that citizens make available to us.”

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