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).
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.
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.”
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.
The time is finally right for people to ethically monetize their own data
In 2011, I called data “a new form of currency” in an interview with Julia Angwin and Emily Steel of The Wall Street Journal. I strongly believed that people had a right to participate in the economics of the data they produced, perhaps even the lion’s share.
I was building the personal data platform Personal at the time (now part of digi.me – a partner of UBDI) and found the response by consumers and the media overwhelmingly positive. If data was indeed the new oil, what if we were each sitting on our own reservoir that just needed to be tapped?
I was not surprised that Silicon Valley insiders scoffed at the idea. In addition to threatening their business model – Facebook was in the process of filing for their IPO based almost entirely on exploiting the personal data they captured – they argued that data was not valuable at an individual level, which was largely true then. Others derided individuals themselves, saying that they could never understand the concept of data – or manage it effectively if they did.
There was an even louder chorus of detractors who said privacy was dead. One brand-name VC backing Facebook told me quite bluntly “it’s just a matter of time for dinosaurs like you to die off.”
Consumer and privacy groups were often just as cynical. One article in direct response to me even said that selling your own data was “like selling body parts.” I’ve heard similar reactions just this week from a few alarmists in response to initial coverage of UBDI.
I understand the concerns, but they are dead wrong. Nothing is more important to our future than taking control over the economics of the data we produce. After a decade working on the problem, I think we’ve finally cracked the code.
UBDI is a startup building a new community of individuals, developers and companies who are committed to working together to ethically monetize data. In the first phase, UBDI has a bulls-eye on the $50 billion market research industry, where aggregated insights and trends are most important – not data about individual people. Other industries will follow, making the addressable market many times larger – not counting the market cap of the companies based on that data.
Similar to the ideas around Universal Basic Income, we believe that individuals will be able to receive hundreds and potentially thousands of dollars annually from ethically monetizing the data they produce – what we call Universal Basic Data Income.
The company is creating an asset- and revenue-backed digital currency, called UBDI, that has the potential not just to let individuals participate in their share of the community profits each year, but also the future value of the community’s data – kind of like an equity.
In short, UBDI members are coming after both the revenue and the capitalized value of their data.
Here’s our announcement this week, as well as a great initial piece by the Daily Mail. And here’s a short video of how it will work when UBDI’s consumer app launches in the spring (please join the waitlist now to earn 1,000 bonus tokens and to show the market research community your willingness to participate)
I would add that I’m blown away by my co-founders, Dana Budzyn, who is CEO, and Mark Kilaghbian, Chief Product Officer. They have rich personal histories that led them to decide to start UBDI.
Dana spoke about how a health condition led her on this journey in a powerful TEDx video that I’ve included below. Mark hosts the most popular crypto podcast on iTunes, called Cryptoconomy, which resulted in part from being being a successful early crypto trader in his teens and in college and then being a victim of the Mt. Gox hack. They are joined by CTO Harun Smkrovic, a rock star developer who helped build Personal and, more recently, a popular crypto wallet.
We are also lucky to be partnered with digi.me, where I still run North American operations and help oversee the development of our app and startup ecosystem. Many thanks to digi.me founder Julian Ranger, CEO Rory Donnelly and the entire digi.me team. Tarik Kurspahic, EVP of Technology at digi.me, also serves on the advisory board of UBDI. UBDI simply wouldn’t be possible without digi.me’s private sharing technology.
It’s worth noting that we will soon be launching a major initiative for developers who want to build apps on UBDI – or integrate their existing apps. Apps can be both free for users and profitable without having to exploit data for advertising. More to come on that shortly.
Finally, we are grateful to our other advisers, including Georgetown Law professor Itai Grinberg, who is figuring out how taxes will work in UBDI, David Nayer, COO of crypto ride sharing company Arcade City, and the many hundreds of people who have advised us as we set out to build this community recently and over the past decade.
All it takes is 1 million people to sign up to prove that we can change the business model of the internet! Please sign up for our waitlist now at ubdi.co.
This week’s Time magazine cover feature on privacy, data and Facebook marks another milestone on the path to a new, fairer more transparent model. Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce and new owner of Time, wasted no time in shining a light on this critical subject.
The column by Tim Cook is the biggest line drawn in the sand yet by Cook and Apple, who are declaring war on the surveillance economy that online advertising requires. It also strikes at the heart of two of their biggest competitors – Facebook and Google.
In addition to supporting a call for new privacy laws, Cook writes:
“But laws alone aren’t enough to ensure that individuals can make use of their privacy rights. We also need to give people tools that they can use to take action.”
Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook and mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, writes an even more damning piece about his difficult decision to call out Facebook executives and ask for them to be held accountable. The article (and his book Zucked) reads like a Silicon Valley version of Frankenstein.
“When I sent that email to Zuck and Sheryl, I assumed that Facebook was a victim. What I learned in the months that followed–about the 2016 election, about the spread of Brexit lies, about data on users being sold to other groups–shocked and disappointed me. It took me a very long time to accept that success had blinded Zuck and Sheryl to the consequences of their actions.”
If Acxiom getting religion on privacy sounds unlikely to you, you aren’t alone. In fact, I’m deeply concerned about companies like them trying to co-opt potential privacy legislation in the United States to both protect themselves and to block innovative privacy models like ours at digi.me, as I discussed with AdWeek just yesterday.
I have personally asked Acxiom many times, including directly to their board of directors, to make a downloadable copy of their digital profile data available to consumers. GDPR in Europe now requires it, and it’s called data portability. The answer has always been no.
If Acxiom wants to prove they are on the digital road to Damascus, they should make their data available to consumers. Every consumer could download a complete, reusable copy of the data Acxiom has about them – thousands of detailed data points.
At digi.me, we have the proven tools to let consumers download exactly this kind of data securely and privately – and to use however they choose (we don’t touch, hold or see data). We’ll do all the work, and won’t even charge for it.
Acxiom, it’s never been easier to prove that you’ve changed.
I had the chance yesterday to speak with Paula Newton on CNN’s Quest Means Business. I thought she was going to focus on the Congressional hearings earlier in the day with Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter, but she really wanted to understand how digi.me works. She’s done quite a lot of stories on how our data and privacy is being abused by the big platforms, so it was refreshing to see her interest in solutions like ours.
We discussed our new app ecosystem, why it’s so interesting for developers, and how we empower people with their data if the data is already “out there” (a question I get all the time). You’ll have to watch the interview to learn more.
It was fun to visit the studio here in Washington. I was in the makeup room with Wolf Blitzer as the news of the mystery New York Times op-ed was breaking. Of course, the first tweet on my interview asked why CNN was talking about privacy and data given the other news. At least I didn’t get bumped!