September 24, 2019

As data privacy issues threaten the oligopolies of the globe’s largest technology companies, initiatives are emerging that might hand back the control of personal data to individuals. This, in turn, could impact the technology employed by many other companies.

Privacy issues are the biggest threat

A new GlobalData report says data privacy issues are the biggest threat to “Big Tech,” indeed technology giants like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and others are under increasing scrutiny, facing scandal, and being hit with huge fines from regulators.

According to reporting by ZDNet Microsoft has a new “Data Dignity” team in its CTO’s office that is focused on giving users more control of their data. Potentially even, in the future, enabling individuals to sell their data to third parties like data-hungry advertisers.

The privacy project

The ZDNet reporter had discovered an incubation project of Microsoft’s entitled “Project Bali.” The project may have been in private testing in January and included work on a “personal data bank” putting users in control of data that has been collected about them and which would allow individuals to view and manage, and even share and monetise their data. ZDNet discovered an “About” page for the project which it says, “Microsoft has since hidden.” The publication speculates as to whether more news on Project Bali could be forthcoming after a data privacy themed feature about Microsoft chief scientist Jaron Lanier in The New York Times.

Lanier, in “The Privacy Project” is featured in three video episodes titled “The Great Data Robbery,” then “You Should Get Paid for Your Data” and “Hope for Our Internet Future.” He believes that people should be paid for their personal data, and that a small family could eventually earn up to $20,000 per year for doing so. Lanier refers to “Data Dignity.” ZDNet found a website which says, “The Art of Research organisation is “embedded” in the Microsoft CTO’s office under the leadership of Lanier,” and that:

“Here at Microsoft, we have a brand new Data Dignity team headed by Christian Liensberger (now hiring!).”

According to the reporter’s investigation the team at Microsoft are looking to “evolve the approach to ML/AI & data at Microsoft and throughout the industry.” A Microsoft job posting also mentions “Data Dignity.” Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer’s (OCTO) remit includes exploring technology trends like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) as well as data security, privacy and even blockchain technology. Microsoft did not comment for the ZDNet reporter.

Is blockchain a solution too?

Elsewhere Datawallet predicts that by 2022 around $7,600 worth of personal information will be bought and sold per person each year. Right now, personal data is collected, bought and sold by all kinds of firms and data brokers.  Equifax earned nearly $500 million in profit in 2016. In September 2018 it revealed a data breach that affected 145 million people.

Datawallet is a blockchain startup developing an application where using blockchain’s immutable security and distributed ledger approach users can control their data using blockchain’s key, hashing, and smart contract technology. Users can send their encrypted data to selected purchasers who only have the key to decrypt the data. This permissioned exchange excludes any unauthorized parties.

Though we’ve no idea if Microsoft is looking to blockchain to hand the control of personal data back to its owners, blockchain technology is offering up a potential way to solve this issue too. The keynote is that the digital landscape we’ve known for the past few decades is changing.

Microsoft is not alone

ZDNet reported on Microsoft’s “Project Bali” back in January 2019, the then available “About” page says the project is a:

“New personal data bank which puts users in control of all data collected about them…. The bank will enable users to store all data (raw and inferred) generated by them. It will allow the user to visualize, manage, control, share and monetise the data.”

There are scant details available as to how Microsoft plans to achieve their personal data bank or when they might tell the world more. We’re waiting to hear what “Data Dignity” looks like. What’s for sure is Microsoft is unlikely to be alone amongst the technology giants working on new technologies and innovations to protect data privacy and impress consumers tired of the constant risk to their personal information.

Facebook, for example, is planning a more private future by encrypting its messaging services and changing to build smaller, more private, communities. As reported by Computer Weekly, Mark Zuckerberg told the F8 developer conference:

“This is not just about a few new features, this is a change in how we build these products and how we run this company. It is not going to happen overnight. And, to be clear, we don’t have all the answers for how this is going to work yet.”

What’s also sure is the implications of new data privacy regulations, like GDPR, and innovation in some of the world’s largest companies will influence the technology and the practices of every size business over time.

If “Big Tech” moves then others will follow, data management and cybersecurity is ever-changing. Even if smaller businesses aren’t ready to invest and investigate like the giants, they should at least be aware of what is happening across the technology landscape.

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