Sir Tim Berners-Lee delivered a wonderful keynote at IP Expo today in which he laid down the idea that people should own their own data, and be able to plug it into any data set from any company to create “rich data”, rather than simply having separate companies owning separate data sets.
It’s a noble ambition, and even makes a great deal of business sense if companies would then able to buy back that “rich data” from people.
My only concerns with the idea, and what became an extended conversation around it, lie in what I’d describe as more than a little blue-sky thinking from Sir Berners-Lee.
Namely, I just don’t truly believe the majority of people even recognise a problem with large companies Hoovering up their personal data, and I certainly don’t see public awareness rising any time soon. People generally don’t see the danger of data sharing, and aren’t exactly demonstrating in the streets to demand a change in the law.
Sir Berners-Lee said: “If you give people an understanding of how their data is being used, they’re much more open to allowing people to use it.” But I don’t believe you need to give people that reason. Most people just aren’t really interested in safeguarding it.
They should be, but they’re not.
And when not even the biggest shock in the history of data privacy could change their minds, how can we hope for more?
Just over a year ago it was revealed to the world, like the dreadful punchline of an epic espionage thriller, that most major world governments have been spying on us all along.
That the US government – allegedly fed by other world governments – had been absorbing emails, telephone calls and more for well over a decade, ignoring legality to the extent that the NSA actually ended up in court.
While the IT industry reeled, and conspiracy theorists everywhere said ‘I told you so’, the world at large didn’t flinch.
Kim Kardashian and X-Factor remained the hot topics of conversation while Edward Snowden’s name faded from memory in mere weeks.
In a press roundtable after his keynote today, Berners-Lee was asked for more detail on how he imagines a government system that is genuinely respectful towards its citizens’ data rights may actually work.
“Emergency powers? Yeah, there’s always an emergency,” he quipped. “We should make sure, emergency or not, that there’s a system in place we all know about – where there’s an agency who watches the watchers, and we need public conversations about that.”
Berners-Lee talked about how he’s been helping GCHQ to start talking about such practice, which is great. But won’t the answer to the question of ‘Who watches the watchers?” simply be yet-another government agency – implemented and overseen by the same governments that have ridden roughshod over these issues for a decade?
He acknowledged that it’s a “tricky” prospect, but nevertheless suggested that we “make the government design it, and put it into place”.
And, if we “need public conversations”, why is nobody having any? Could it be because not enough people actually care?
Berners-Lee was also asked how organisations can be incentivised to better respect data privacy. Referring to his earlier words, Berners-Lee again suggested government regulation, but also said he believed that “where things are transparent enough, people will vote with their feet and go to a different website”.
I cannot for the life of me remember a time when the vast majority of users left, say, a social network because the next one was more respectful toward their data. In fact, kids left Myspace and Bebo in their droves to voluntarily chuck every tiny detail of their lives at Mark Zuckerberg’s bank account simply because the more data they fed it, the better it could keep them connected with one another.
Berners-Lee suggested social networks called “Sgrouples” and “Ello” as alternatives to Facebook. I do not for a second think teenagers would pick either of these options for any reason except the appeal of popular social features, but that those would come in a different form than (to a 14-year old) some philosophical argument over the terrible dangers of typing your name and date of birth into a form, and ticking a box (without reading the small print).
And let’s remember, the millennials are the future of both the consumer and enterprise worlds.
I recently read an extremely interesting article which, brilliantly, compared the attitudes of the over- and under- 30s when using a new personal finance app. Apart from offering fast Bluetooth micro-payments among friends (quite problematic in itself, on a security level), the app also ‘socialises’ those payments between defined social groups.
Should I really give a damn if my friend Sally buys my friend Fred a coffee? No. More importantly would I want Sally to know I was buying Fred a coffee? Of course not. It’s literally needless information, and would make me quite uncomfortable.
But the article proves a neat and clean point. According to the piece nobody at all under 30 who tweeted comment on the app saw any problem with leaving an inherently pointless and “fun” trail of their personal accounts behind them, on public clouds and easily viewable by anyone, at any point now or in the future – acquaintances, stalkers, HMRC.
They are so inherently comfortable with leaving a breadcrumb trail of data behind with their every action – online and in the real world – that they certainly don’t have an issue broadcasting such an apparently trivial social interaction.
Nobody cares, Tim
Everybody would rather use iTunes immediately, and tick that “I consent” box, than wade through 40 pages of terms and conditions (in eight-point text). The personal privacy ship set sail a long time ago and, as much as I respect Berners-Lee for everything he has brought to the world of technology (for no charge), I can’t see any actual solutions even hinted at by him today.
Not that I believe it’s Berners-Lee’s job, in particular, to sort all this out. Inventing the Worldwide Web and donating it to us all to use for free is quite enough for one lifetime – he doesn’t owe it to us to help us control everything it has brought with it as well.
At the same time, though, the work he’s doing at the Open Data Institute is valuable – but you can’t protect people from themselves.
At one point, Berners-Lee stated that he doesn’t like to comment on what “will happen”, but what “should happen”. I just can’t help but feel I’d rather hear realistic ideas towards the former eventuality, backdropped against the incredible layer of apathy the average person displays towards the safeguarding of their personal data.
But data, in many ways, is ephemeral. In most cases, we are compelled to provide it simply to interact with the world. You can’t keep a person’s name and contact details as theirs and theirs alone, for example, unless you wire their nervous system up to a 20,000-volt battery that punishes them every time they start to type their date of birth into to the latest social app.
Not only do I doubt that’s what Tim Berners-Lee wants, I also know plenty of otherwise sane and reasonable adults who would happily suffer a moderate-to-severe electric shock just to be allowed to keep using Facebook.