The Berlin Wall, a watchtower and data empowerment

The Watchtower at the Gropius-Bau Museum in Berlin.

I’m in Berlin discussing digital identity and data empowerment at the World Frontiers Forum. The 2-day event is being held quite purposely at a site adjacent to the former Berlin Wall on the 30th anniversary of its fall (on November 9, 1989).

It’s also the city where I was tasked by Nokia – in 2009 – to figure out a strategy on what to do with data on 1.2 billion Nokia users. A colleague and I decided that very night, not so far from the former Stasi headquarters, to build a platform for people to take control of their own data and use as they choose.

It was instantly clear to us how different the world might have been if the East German surveillance state had the means to know what 1.2 billion people were doing, where they were going, what they were reading, and who they were communicating with. The authoritarian risk has only grown in the last 10 years (see China and its active export of its surveillance tools).

With the artist who created The Watchtower – Nadia Kaabi-Linke (she says it’s actually based on a hunter stand, which, unlike a watchtower, is designed to be hidden).

I first came to Berlin on a fellowship as a young high school student in 1987. The experience of seeing both sides of ground zero of the Cold War was as close to a life changing experience as a suburban kid from Jacksonville, Florida could have. For the first time, I felt a complete loss of control to a force that was (mostly) faceless and nameless and watching my every move. That included a frightening encounter with a voice from a watchtower loudspeaker that ordered me to move away from a forbidden zone by the Wall and a small river.

That experience rushed back to me yesterday visiting an art installation at the Gropius-Bau Museum called The Watchtower. Walking in the room and seeing the menacing shadow on the wall and floor, I found myself backing away until I was pressed against the window frame on the opposing wall.

My next thought was that I couldn’t understand the origin of the shadows. I searched for the light and model but couldn’t find them (spoiler alert: it turns out they were painted). The artist, Nadia Kaabi-Linte (also attending the artist inspired WFF), was accompanying us. She confirmed another person’s view that it represented, in part, the unseen tracking and exploitation of our lives by companies and governments.

I turned to look out the window. The view was of remains of the Berlin Wall and the location of the former Gestapo headquarters (now a museum of that regime of terror). I couldn’t have tied together my lifetime of experiences any more powerfully. It’s time for people to be empowered with their data and identity. Enough. Genug.

View of the remnants of the Berlin Wall and entrance to the former Gestapo headquarters from the window of The Watchtower art installation.

NPR goes deep on UBDI

After a whirlwind week presenting UBDI at the Finovate conference in New York and at the MyData conference in Helsinki, I didn’t even notice the Slack message saying that the “NPR story was out.” Several hours later I sat down to listen to the NPR Marketplace Tech interview with my co-founder, Dana Budzyn. She was also in Helsinki and hadn’t even listened to it yet.

In a world of sound bites and 280 character tweets, the in-depth discussion between Dana and host Molly Wood was completely unexpected. We couldn’t have written a better lead in:

“Universal Basic Data Income. It’s not just an idea. There’s an app for that.”

NPR Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood

I spoke today at MyData on owning and monetizing data, the leading personal data and privacy conference in Europe. There is still so much misunderstanding and distrust around the idea. That’s not surprising given how badly people and their data have been treated in the digital world.

Showing off our new swag at the digi.me and UBDI booth at MyData in Helsinki – with Dana Budzyn, CEO of UBDI, and Yuta Matsuzawa of DG Lab (our lead investor).

Hats off to NPR and Molly Wood for such a thoughtful and balanced story. We only wish our iOS app were approved by Apple for people to sign up after hearing the story. We’ll post a link soon when it’s available.

UBDI secures $825k first round of funding

UBDI announced a great group of investors today in it’s $825k pre-seed round, which was led by DG Lab Fund II (a JV in Tokyo and San Francisco between Digital Garage and Daiwa Securities Group) an HU Investments (of New York, London and India). PurposeBuilt Ventures of San Francis also participated. You can read the press announcement here and their post on the round here.

As I recently wrote, the level of funding around privacy-preserving data empowerment businesses is paltry compared to the massive problems they help address – data privacy, security, trust, transparency, equitable participation in profits, etc. UBDI might be the first business built on a privacy by design data platform (digi.me) that has a simple, valuable enough value proposition for both consumers (monetize data at more than $1k annually in a few hours time) and businesses (improve quantitative and qualitative research results and make regulators happy) that I’ve seen.

It still takes about 10 minutes to set up, including downloading the separate digi.me app to protect and store the raw data, and the exact price points to get people to participate in studies needs to be worked out, but UBDI has an easy to use app that motivated consumers will have little problem navigating. And researchers of all kinds – market research, financial research, health research, academic research – will be blown away by what they find. Stay tuned for more announcements on the app coming out of beta.

Why I’m teaming up with Future State

I am excited to announce that I am joining forces with Future State (futurestate.org) as a senior advisor. Future State is a relatively new organization based in Washington, DC that is focused on data empowerment, especially in emerging markets where digital policies are at key inflection points that can more rapidly support this model. It is led by Priya Jaisinghani Vora, Kay McGowan and Jonathan Dolan, who helped develop and lead key digital, data and financial inclusion efforts at USAID.

Here is how they describe their mission: 

“Future State puts the rights and aspirations of people at the center of the digital revolution. Through our research, advocacy and direct efforts to spur action by policymakers, civil society and developers around the world, we advance approaches that maximize people’s participation, individual agency, choice and trust in the digital era.” 

FutureState.org

I couldn’t be more passionate about what they are doing, especially their shining a light on the need for far greater governmental, corporate and philanthropic investment in data empowerment (more on that below).

2019 marks my 10th year working on data empowerment following my departure from Nokia (after they asked me to develop a strategy for exploiting data they were surreptitiously collecting on 1.2 billion customers). What started as a movement to put data directly into the hands of people to use how they choose has turned into the frontline battleground of digital power dynamics. 

Data empowerment is broadly associated with efforts around transparency, privacy, data security and equitable exchange of value, including the direct participation in the economics of data. It is different, however, in that it has a fundamental view that none of these can be properly addressed without the individual playing a primary role in aggregating and setting permissions to their data.

Almost all of my efforts over this decade have centered around developing the building blocks required for data empowerment, including: 

  • building a privacy by design platform for an individual to import, secure and share data;
  • designing data normalization and standardization methods for organizing massively heterogeneous data;
  • developing private sharing protocols with apps that leverage edge processing on the device; and
  • creating compelling use cases for individuals, developers, companies and regulators to embrace this new model.

[You can read more about those efforts – Personal, digi.me, UBDI, TFP, Fill It, TeamData, etc – and why I am so excited about the progress we have made in other posts.]

Along the way, I have had to beg (literally), borrow (literally) and steal (figuratively) to cobble together resources to build these solutions. To date, my ventures, including the combined digi.me/Personal, have raised close to $50 million – which is among the highest funded data empowerment efforts so far. But that’s an average of about $5 million annually to change the fundamental architecture and business model of the digital world. It’s a paltry sum compared to the fortune that gets invested hourly (literally) in the surveillance-based model that prevails online. 

It’s time for that to change. Future State’s work will highlight success stories around the world, and provide thoughtful, practical and empirically-driven recommendations to policymakers, enlightened CEOs, developers, philanthropists and civil society leaders.

I think what happens without data empowerment is getting clearer by the day. I’m looking forward to working with these visionaries to show what the future state can look like when we all have primary agency over our data.

Cleaning up our social media mess

One of my favorite apps that has come out of our digi.me hackathons is TFP (as in That F’ing Post). We are incubating it now inside the Social Safe Incubator, and have a small team from the University of Michigan working on it with us. You can check it out at: TFPapp.com

Like the name suggests, TFP helps flag social media posts of yours that might be considered vulgar or offensive. It uses a library of over 3,000 words and phrases that get matched privately against your entire history of social posts from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Flickr. You can then edit or delete any posts you find concerning, especially those from your middle school years before you became the enlightened person you are now.

Understanding our digital footprint is essential, especially content that we created ourselves. TFP is an important first step in that effort. I look forward to hearing what you think.

A personal homecoming at the University of Michigan

I was invited by the University of Michigan’s School of Engineering and Center for Entrepreneurship to give a “Ted Talk” on my entrepreneurial journey and how I came to be so passionate about empowering people with their data, privacy and identity.

I wrote one of my first blog posts in 2010 about the origins of my thinking when I was a student around concerns of “being defined by others,” so I really enjoyed this special chance to share my story. I’ve never been more convinced that our data-driven future depends on each of us having agency over our data and identity.

And, thankfully, the tools and rules to make that happen are finally emerging – like the digi.me Private Sharing platform and the UBDI monetization app (which debuted in beta while I was in Ann Arbor).

Click to watch the full length presentation with Q&A (41 min)

Don’t be fooled by Silicon Valley’s privacy shell game

Here is the text of Shane’s Op-Ed, which appeared in today’s Washington Examiner.

Congress confronted privacy and personal data rights in a pair of hearings last week. This week, Mark Zuckerberg announced a “privacy pivot” at Facebook, yet failed to propose a single tangible reform of its core business.

Zuckerberg’s privacy manifesto illustrates the core problem. Big tech companies such as Facebook have no real interest in changing their practices. Their entire business model is based on owning and exploiting personal data to manipulate people and sell advertising. They’ll defend that at all costs.

AP – Shane Green on Facebook’s “lip service” to privacy

The ongoing series of privacy scandals and last year’s high profile hearings led the Silicon Valley giants, including Facebook, to hire a small army of lobbyists. Although there has been no new legislation yet, data privacy reform is in the air, and the jockeying behind the scenes is telling.

Facebook’s position and the overall surveillance-based business model has become impossible to defend. With few straightforward options, the lobbyists for the social network and other tech behemoths are now trying to manufacture a partisan crack in what is clearly a bipartisan issue with the hope that they can co-opt the regulatory process as a result.

Even more troubling than watered-down privacy legislation that creates an appearance of accountability and enforcement is the possibility that regulations will create significant new compliance costs. This would allow these data oligopolies to further entrench their dominance against startups and new entrants to the market. Facebook can simply absorb the new costs, while smaller companies and startups, many of whom are starting to emerge with innovative tools to empower people with their data, would be boxed out.

The other focal point of their strategy is to deny state-level activism and innovation. This strategy started last September, when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Internet Association released ten new “privacy principles.” The very first of these principles, which has been echoed nonstop since, was to call for “a single federal privacy law.” While it’s reasonable to demand a unified national approach to privacy, it is far too early to defang state-based privacy laws such as the one in California, which the industry fought before losing handily in a public referendum.

California has, in fact, been a national leader on privacy issues, and their popular law goes a long way toward returning control to consumers. It takes the practices of big companies out of the shadows, which is the first step toward empowerment. It isn’t perfect, but it marked an important and awakened many to the abuses and dangers of the current “click here so we can own your data” model.

Under the newly elected Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, California appears poised to continue to lead on this issue. I don’t think anyone has fully processed the significance of Newsom’s calls for a “digital dividend” in his State of the State address earlier this month. This was one of the first real acknowledgments from a major public figure that trillions of dollars in wealth is being created by companies from users’ personal data, and that those same users have a right to a piece of that pie and to ensure that their data is being used for and not against them.

Of course companies that are making trillions of dollars off of private data are going to resist efforts to let others wrangle their cash cows. But the next time Zuckerberg or another Silicon Valley executive is hauled before Congress to defend data practices, which will likely happen in the coming months, we need to make sure we don’t fall for their shell game.

It’s long past time for power over data to be put back in the hands of the users to whom it belongs. I hope that Congress uses that principle as their starting point and their end goal. We need real action, not empty Facebook posts.

Shane Green is CEO of the private data sharing company digi.me and co-founder of UBDI, a consumer-controlled market research and data monetization community. He blogs at shanegreen.org and you can follow him on Twitter @shanegreen.