The Cost of Identity in the Personal Data Economy

I sync, therefore I am.

Every tweet. Every post. Every search. Every movement. Every action or word pushed to the digital sphere creates a portrait of your identity. The advent of Google Glass and similar technologies also means your preference towards privacy and posting becomes irrelevant regarding information made available about who you are and what you do. Soon you'll be a part of other people's videos or life narratives whether it's your choice or not.

Discussions around these tracking behaviors tend to focus on privacy. But the issue needs to shift to encompass the economics of monetizing our identities currently controlled by a handful of organizations determining the flow of our digital information. What they don't want you to realize is the expanding revenue they're making on the insights explicitly drawn from your life. Your identity in data is valuable and right now we're giving it away for free.

Banking Your Personal Data

"Consent is not the same as negotiation." Scott L. David is Executive Director, Law, Technology and Arts Group at the University of Washington Law School. He's currently creating legal taxonomies around personal data banking, or a trend known as personal data clouds for individuals, in the context of the existing Internet economy. In regards to the freemuim model that currently drives the Web, David explains why exchanging personal data to use a service like Amazon or Facebook is far from equitable in nature:

These transactions aren't negotiations in the traditional sense -- the terms of service and policies of these organizations are, in effect, saying, "I'm doing this -- do you consent?" That's a take it or leave it proposition which creates a paradigm of inequality. If we want to build trust in the digital era, we have to have a system that doesn't make people feel alienated since we're happiest when we're in control.

"We have to rethink our institutional structures." John Henry Clippinger is a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab Human Dynamics Group and the cofounder and Executive Director of ID3, (the Institute for Institutional Innovation & Data Driven Design). He and his ID3 cofounder, Alex "Sandy" Pentland have created The Open Mustard Seed Project (OMS) to combat the existing model of data exchange for the Internet economy. "There's a logic among companies that collect data which is, 'If I can get away with something, I can do it,'" notes Clippinger. "But they don't understand the ecosystem they're creating."

OMS is building a data banking methodology through a technical architecture they call the, "Trustworthy Compute Framework" (TCF). This allows users to create their own personal data cloud that reverses the current transactional nature of the "freemium" Internet economy. Instead of individuals sacrificing their data in exchange for services, they create general preferences around which companies they'd like to engage with and how. Here's how the Open Mustard Seed wiki describes the need for this new paradigm:

Users have not had an easy or reliable means to express their preferences for how their personal data may be accessed and used, especially when one context (a bank) differs so much from another (a health care provider) and still others (family and friends). A user may not know with whom they are really transacting, nor can they readily verify that their privacy preferences are actually respected and enforced.

OMS lets users curate their digital personas and manage the data they collect, produce and distribute. They can also pre-determine privacy and other settings for social networks or transactions with brands. This is a critical idea regarding personal data banks -- they don't hinder transactions with companies looking to communicate with consumers. Relationships are actually enhanced via increased trust since people know what organizations will do with their data, and will be more likely to volunteer specifics about their lives in this new transparent framework. (This is an idea known as Vendor Relationship Management, or VRM, eloquently elaborated in the book, The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, by Doc Searls.)

Clippinger is evangelistic about the timing for a solution like OMS, noting what will happen if we don't change the tide of how our data is managed in the current Internet economy -- "If you don't have an open platform, you don't have an open society."

Hacking Happiness

ID3 is currently hosting a series of hackathons in conjunction with The H(app)athon Project, the non-profit I founded a year ago. Our mission is, "Connecting Happiness to Action" and we're building an app on top of OMS's open-source framework because we want people taking our surveys (we send two short daily prompts asking people questions related to their well-being, while also measuring their actions via passive sensors in their smartphones) to begin to understand the inestimable value of their data.

"Open Mustard Seed is something I've been dreaming of and working in indirectly for a few years," noted Adrian Gropper M.D., chief technology officer of Patient Privacy Rights, an expert in the regulated medical device field with a long record of contributing to the development of state and national health standards. An attendee at the first H(app)athon Hackathon held at ID3's offices last August, he sees OMS' open-source mindset towards data as being essential towards creating trust in the modern health arena. "Unless there's technology to align doctors and patients, 21st-century health is not going to happen. We need a different set of data and app flows that OMS represents."

Jake Butler is a product manager for MeYou Health, a company dedicated to helping people pursue, achieve and maintain a more healthful life by improving their well-being every day. Butler was another attendee at the H(app)athon Hackathon, and while interested in ID3, he doesn't see the Data Banking model being adopted rapidly but via a steady and linear path. "I think the move towards cloud-based systems in the last five to seven years is making something like OMS possible, especially since there's not the high cost of infrastructure for servers that there used to be."

The Common Wealth Hackathons will continue into 2014 as The H(app)athon Project works with the City of Somerville, Massachusetts, to give our sensor-based surveys to citizens in conjunction with OMS' open-source framework.


In their recent piece in the Stanford Law Review, Neil M. Richards and Jonathan H. King elucidate the "identity paradox," one of the "Three Paradoxes of Big Data" affecting how the current Internet economy functions: "Whereas the important right to privacy harkens from the right to be left alone, the right to identity originates from the right to free choice about who we are."

This right is rapidly eroding in our current Internet economy. Restricted or occluded access to how our personal data gets used means the personalized algorithms navigating our lives will soon establish more of our digital identity than we create for ourselves. As Richards and King note in their article:

Such influence over our individual and collective identities risks eroding the vigor and quality of our democracy. If we lack the power to individually say who 'I am,' if filters and nudges and personalized recommendations undermine our intellectual choices, we will have become identified but lose our identities as we have defined and cherished them in the past.

Open Mustard Seed is working to create a framework allowing people to manage their own data and decide for themselves how their identity is broadcast, but we as individuals need to better manage our data to protect our right to create our identities as we see fit. We need to recognize that the current "sharing" economy of Internet commerce is built on a financial infrastructure that is anything but evenly distributed, and is rapidly eroding our ability to portray our character, value, and lives within a context where we have sovereignty over how we're broadcast to the world.

So take control of your digital identity now before syncing, and thinking, are completely controlled by someone else.

For more by John Havens, click here.