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Trust, Rights & Data Privacy in a Digital World

The rise and maturation of social media, mobile computing, and cloud technologies have reached a point of confluence that now results in unprecedented amounts of consumer data being managed by third parties, and consumer privacy has increasingly become a topic of mainstream conversation. Although consumer privacy in a cloud era is a complex conversation that’s laden with buzzwords, the substrate is fairly fundamental and is predicated upon fundamental concepts of property rights and trust:

  • Property Rights: Who owns a consumer’s data? The consumer or the big data business that extends value-added products and services in exchange for housing and processing it?
  • Trust: Irrespective of any idiosyncrasies involving property rights for consumer data, why should consumers believe that businesses will be held accountable and their property rights will be respected?

With respect to property rights or any forfeiture thereof, businesses that depend on consumer data for profitability for the most part roam freely and subject end users with fairly complex privacy policies, end user license agreements, and other notices concerning the portability of consumer data, and typically, failure to accept the terms as stated results in a consumer’s inability to either gain initial access to the software or to continue using the software. End users are left to make a choice as to whether or not it is worth the burden to understand the terms and agreements before using the software, and most end users click through without giving it another thought, concluding that the cost is worth the benefit. Moments later, most consumers typically forget all about the agreements and begin mistakenly thinking of the software as a free product and have little or no awareness as to what, if any, legally binding basis they may have governing the use of their own data within the product and related consequences.

Trust is the fundamental basis of any relationship, including relationships between consumers and cloud services providers, and in the best case, consumers of cloud services would have placed their trust (and data) in the hands of a highly ethical company with policies that just so happen to align with compatible values and expectations. At worst, the consumer has just intentionally subjected themselves to self-imposed ignorance and whatever consequences it may eventually bring. Unfortunately for the unassuming consumer, ignorance isn’t always bliss. As a case in point, consider a recent class action lawsuit against Google in which U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal strikes down a class-action lawsuit against Google’s efforts to unify personally identifiable data across Google online properties with the following remark:

“By now, most people know who Google is and what Google does. Google serves billions of online users in this country and around the world …  With little or no revenue from its users, Google still manages to turn a healthy profit by selling advertisements within its products that rely in substantial part on users’ personal identification information … in this model, the users are the real product.”

Hence, unassuming consumers misplace trust by rather blindly accepting terms that they largely cannot control in order to gain convenience and as a consequence, unwittingly sacrifice data ownership rights and ultimately, privacy. In a subtly self-perpetuating cycle, big data businesses are increasingly able to gain more leverage in the situation as their services become more normative, per Judge Grewal’s comment that there is increasing reason to expect consumers to be accountable for considering the purposes of the seemingly free products and services that they are using as part of an implicit exchange of data for convenience. To varying degrees, both consumers and big data businesses are culpable for emerging privacy issues involving consumer data. Like other complex societal problems, it takes a combination of civic education, governmental regulation, and industrial transformation to reach a satisfactory point of sustained homeostatic accountability.

Even though ongoing cooperation amongst consumers, industry, and government is quite necessary in order to address any complex societal problem, including one involving of consumer privacy, fundamental evolutions to the technology fabric that has enabled the dilemma in the first place. In the context of the current discussion, recall that the technological root with consumer privacy stems from the situation in which big data businesses store massive amounts of consumer data in their clouds and for the most part have remained comparatively unchecked in how they are able to use the data in comparison to other data-heavy industries such as government, finance, or healthcare.

In considering how evolutions to technology itself can simplify the problem, it seems natural enough to consider ways in which consumers store less in a cloud controlled by a centrally managed big data business and more on the edge of the network in devices and storage in which they themselves control. Consider, for example, an “Internet 2.0” in which a decentralized cloud infrastructure consisting of increasingly powerful devices controlled by consumers are connected across high speed connections that’s composed of grid/mesh networks and offers unprecedented possibilities for distributed computing and storage.

Data being migrated out of an efficient cloud network and onto the edge of a highly transient network with potentially high latency is not without its challenges, but the ideas behind early prototypes such as Napster have continued to evolve into more sophisticated possibilities such as BitTorrent. Furthermore, the maturation of the block chain opens up possibilities in which alt-coin currencies reach a point of ubiquity that eventually drive financial transaction costs to near-zero in decentralized banking paradigms such that long-awaited micropayments can be realized in which tiny fractional units of currency are moved around efficiently. Near frictionless payments could in turn enable intelligent devices and software agents to act on a consumer’s behalf for varying degrees of service subject to the current market rate. In the same way that consumers who own solar panels are increasingly able to deliver energy back into the grid and create positive cashflow, consumers could perhaps do the same thing by way of making explicit choices between privacy and monetization of their data.

In this sketch of a distributed cloud paradigm, the key difference is that technology has evolved to a point in which consumers have far less reliance on centrally-managed cloud-based services controlled by a powerful third-party and instead rely on ubiquitous distributed storage. In such a model, issues of governmental regulation become mostly moot points and consumers are left to make explicit choices about the value that they place on privacy. Either way, there is a choice: some consumers may exchange all of their privacy and live in a digitally naked state in which they go as far as to monetize something as fundamental as their DNA while others may place a premium on privacy and pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year to enable near anonymity.

Although it may indeed be far-fetched, just bear in mind that the block chain already stands a chance to disrupt centralized banking as we have known it for thousands of years with increasingly sophisticated fully decentralized currencies and supporting toolchains, disruptive innovations are increasingly happening in connectivity technology alongside of plummeting compute/storage infrastructure, and increases in investment in “Hard AI” and advancements toward Artificial General Intelligence. Given that humans tend to consistently under-predict advancements in technology by way of not being particularly good at intuiting increases in acceleration that create non-linear change, is a distributed and decentralized cloud compute infrastructure — and Internet 2.0 — really all that different from a robust and mature Internet of Things?