Ethics on the ground 

I had the privilege to speak about “agile data” at an event last week. Alongside me in the lineup were the CEO of Steama.co, an internet of things energy company servicing the African market, and a senior technologist from a leading car manufacturer. 

Each talk provoked discussion and it was great to see people in the audience really getting their heads around the wider issues being discussed, particularly when it came to ethics. 

Two of the talks touched on data sharing and data collection (and retention) infrastructure and it was genuinely reassuring to see audience members – practitioners – questioning the ethical framework within which these projects sit from at least two perspectives: “is it ethical to do that?” and “is it ethical to not do that?”

It’s all very well having CEOs, university professors and politicians calling out sociological and ethical implications of technology (think Musk and Hawking on the potential dangers of AI development), but having it thought about and having opinions form at the working level is what will really make the difference. Bravo. 

A Solid start to protecting data freedom in the age of the information giants

Not long after I’d written Carbon Paper for Personal Data, I was fortunate to be able to attend a livecast at ODI Leeds of the truly inspiring Sir Tim Berners Lee talking about the evolution of the web. He talked about the growth of the internet giants (Google, Facebook, Amazon in particular) and how the web had changed from a grassroots information publishing movement into something quite different.

He said that one quality of today’s use of the web is that user freedom is hurt because we (users) trade it for convenience. In return, the internet giants get to make us the product and sell our attention to the highest bidder.

I’m worried about the risk giants pose to users’ freedoms. Discussions on “freedoms” can quickly become vague so I’m going to try and use this series to clarify what I mean by showing what protecting these freedoms feels like.

By “freedom” in this context, I mean the freedom to switch information service provider and to control what information I share with each service. This matters because in a market (unlike a functioning democracy) the only real power users have is the power to choose to use a competitor.

If “absolute power corrupts absolutely” isn’t enough take a look at the excellent information here from 2015 by Mozilla’s Mark Surman, particularly the bits about Android, Facebook and WhatsApp.

So as well as adding my voice to the growing number who feel as though the noose is slowly tightening, I’m going to put some effort into trying to walk another path, a path where “we the people” are back in control. Tim Berners Lee founded Solid to try and give people the tools to build services differently and it is with this toolkit that I’d like to begin experimenting.

I believe that the only way this kind of thing will really make sense to people is if we can find a real set of services that, by using them, make users see the world completely differently – just like iPhone made people completely change how they saw a collection of technologies that was mostly already available to them.

In my mind the biggest barrier to avoiding the risk of internet giants abusing their power over us is that we’ve not yet found a way to give people a sense of the freedom they risk losing. There is no concept of a “mobile app” and the world is just SMS and phone calls.

Stay tuned for more, folks, or even better, if this has clicked with you, get in touch via Twitter and we can change the world together.

Starting a conversation – carbon paper for data

What if companies that used your data made it available for your use? What if they did it in a way that made it easy for you, or other organisations that you authorised, to understand and exploit your digital footprint?

Body heat eating robots

Imagine going to the gym to find out that the 20 minutes you did on the rowing machine contributed to a stockpile of electrical energy that the gym then sold on to the National Grid.

Or imagine Your Data was the bodyheat that you give off. As you walk around going about your business, thousands of tiny robots swarm around you gobbling up the bodyheat and feeding it back to the robot mothership.

It would feel like we’d crossed a line, tipping the balance of who gets value from being a person away from, well, people and rendering us little more than intensively farmed fungii grown in caves to support our super-evolved overlords.

And the thing about data is that, unlike body heat or kinetic energy, it can be copied and shared. You do not have to click twice on a button for two people to know you clicked on the button.

So on the one hand we have industries farming the byproduct of people’s everyday comings and goings, and on the other the fact in spite of the relative cheapness of doing so, these same industries coveting this data as though it were a finite resource, when in fact it isn’t.

When you consider that this kind of data is gathered by businesses facilitating day-to-day activities that are necessary or socially-necessary, it starts to seem like the game is rigged.

Facebook is a very pure example of this. They’ve created the best kind of gym (for them): we are compelled to go there; all our friends spend time there, and when we get there not only is the kinetic energy we generate using the equipment sold on at a profit, but so is our body heat, our sweat and information gleaned from the conversations we have while we’re in there – all absorbed by the swarm of tiny creepy robots.

Levelling the playing field: beginning a conversation

Creepiness aside, I’m concerned by just how stacked the deck is. I’m beginning a series of conversations with leaders in data, privacy and industry to see if we can bring some healthy balance to this system of use-data-exploitation-use. I’m starting with this:

What if companies that gathered and used your data made it systematically available for your use?

This would need to be protected by 1. strong digital identities and unlocked by an open, 2. community-curated ontology and a standards-based approach to 3. explicitly-consensual data sharing.

For me, this would begin to restore balance. The way I see it, only one half of the business/person relationship is realising value from our data. Organisations opening up this value to the user (the creator) of this data or their delegates would have, I believe, very interesting consequences, drive innovation and unlock unrealised potential in the sharing economy.

Combined with increasing levels of savviness in the UK population and the increasing sophistication of digital services, this could be the beginning of people taking back control of their data and a new era for technology enablement.