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Keeping personally identifiable data personal

As it celebrates its 100th birthday, the BBC has begun a pilot looking into its role in enabling the general public to store their personal data

The BBC has developed a web app that uses live personal data from the BBC, Spotify and Netflix to create a media profile for users.

According to BBC Research, this media profile allows the user to view and edit their entire media viewing history in one place. Built on an open source tool called Solid, which was initially developed by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, the proof-of-concept project uses the idea of people taking control of their own data, which is stored in “pods”.

“We have been exploring personal data stores in BBC R&D for several years,” says Eleni Sharp, head of product innovation at the BBC. She believes that the way major organisations handle personal data is not acceptable. “I think people are feeling frustrated and they don’t know what to do,” she says. 

Sharp feels the industry is shifting because people are upset with the current situation regarding their personal data. “You are giving away your data constantly all through the day,” she says. “But actually the difference with a personal data store is you keep your data secure in one place.”

As Sharp explains, the important thing about the data pod is that people have control over what they want to share. “So you decide as and when you want to give people permission,” she says. “This totally turns things upside down, which is just fantastic. We are at the start of something so revolutionary.”

In a blog post describing how the technology is being piloted, Sharp says: “We have developed a web app that uses live personal data from the BBC, Spotify and Netflix to create a media profile for a user. The media profile allows the user to view and edit their entire media viewing history in one place. We can then send a profile derived from this data to our research version of BBC Sounds to provide enriched recommendations and suggestions of relevant local events.”

She says this is the first time that people can have a social TV experience with friends, and are able to ensure they are in full control of the data they share. It effectively allows a group of friends to have a shared experience, watching the same internet-streamed show or audio stream. She adds: “It’s the first time people can have this  kind of experience.”

Beyond offering a way for people to create a personal profile for their streaming media services, BBC Technology has also developed a more comprehensive personal data store prototype called My PDS, which explores what Sharp describes as “a more comprehensive product, with multiple profiles, including media, health, finance and social”. According to Sharp, these profiles visualise and bring to life personal data that has been imported into My PDS.

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John Bruce, CEO at Inrupt, describes the technology as a way to build on top of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which sets in law provisions to protect personally identifiable user data. “We like to think that GDPR puts up the guardrails and keeps a measure of control over corporations,” he says.

According to Bruce, the technology from Inrupt “allows us to deliver against the spirit of what GDPR is trying to do, and put control in the hands of users”.

Among the goals of the BBC pilot is to introduce the idea of a personal data store to the general public. “We just want people starting to get used to seeing their data and being able to make choices,” says Sharp. “They could share it back to the BBC if they want.”

The battle the BBC is likely to face is that the public put their “trust” in the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook. How the general public differentiate between a data store they have sole control over and what the tech giants offer remain to be seen.

But Bruce believes a personal data store based on open technologies is how all public services will be delivered to citizens. “The BBC have just beaten the tech giants to the punch,” he says.

Unlike the major tech businesses, which may have business data that relies on hoarding users’ personal data, Bruce says: “We’re not going to pry inside your life. We’re not going to try and look at your behaviour and determine if you have a propensity to purchase my next product or service.”

Because the idea of a personal data pod is based on open source technology and open standards, any organisation can offer it. But, as Bruce points out, the question is whether they will, as the idea of a personal data pod is that the user, not the technology provider, has control of the data.

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