Little Sister

By: Jim Fruchterman, Benetech founder

The digital revolution has brought our society incredibly powerful tools that enable us to do many things better, faster, and cheaper. However, it’s also created the perfect spy environment. When we use or carry a networked device, we leave extensive data-trails that are unique to us as individuals. Trying to anonymize raw data doesn’t seem to work. It’s just too easy to match us up in the many databases that track each of us.

Almost all surveillance of people using networked technology is carried out for commercial purposes: mainly to target advertising more effectively. The National Security Agency and its government peers around the world claim to only use it to chase “bad guys,” a definition that is unfortunately quite elastic.

Big Brother is here.

We’ve all gotten used to the steady loss of our privacy using computers online. Extreme data collection is increasingly becoming part of our lives, entering our homes, offices, our cars, and even our bodies. By creating an Internet of Things, where more and more appliances and objects are connected, this trend will likely continue and expand.

Now, it may be that many of us don’t mind or don’t know how to tackle this continued erosion of privacy. But what if there was an antidote to Big Brother?

Little Sister

Enter Little Sister.

Imagine a world where data-collecting products had the option to meet a stringent certification standard that specified that data sharing with third parties was turned off by default. Imagine that there was a standard privacy interface that made understanding privacy settings easy and straightforward; and a certification process that confirmed whether said products were abiding by these constraints?

There are indications that society is beginning to claw back a little of its privacy. For instance, a federal appeals court in New York recently declared that bulk collection of data on Americans is illegal. States are passing major privacy protections for school-supplied data about students. And Consumer Reports is covering privacy as an important product feature and issue. Perhaps the tide is beginning to turn.

Makers of products that collect personal data will have to choose sides, or, perhaps, play both sides and let the consumer choose.

Little Sister would enable makers of networked devices to do so. It puts the consumer back in charge of their data and privacy. Consumers might still choose to give up some of their data, but it will be an active decision driven by self-interest rather than a silent default setting on the products they use.

How does it work? Using currently available technology, Little Sister would be a new certification standard for products that meet its standards. Think of it as Underwriters Laboratory for your data. Little Sister-compliant products would:

  • Support encryption of your data
  • Have a uniform privacy interface that makes it easy to set preferences across all Little Sister products you own;
  • Are set by default to not share data;
  • Have easy-to-understand privacy settings:
    o Green: not being shared
    o Yellow: being shared in specific ways you approve
    o Red: being shared widely
  • Provide certification that helps prove that data isn’t leaking out of your device unbeknownst to you; and
  • Support the ability to sell your data for a specific price.

Will consumers care enough about their data privacy to embrace Little Sister? I think that we are entering a period where they might just care. One primary driver towards this trend is concern for our children. We really don’t want appliances making data available about who is home alone in our houses, or which TV shows make my heart beat faster!

Given that our data is regularly sold without consumer input or meaningful compensation, it would be exciting to put a price tag on our information. If a big data company offered me 10 cents a month for my highly personal data, I’d find it pretty easy to decline to share. However, if my utility company offered to pay me $60 a month for my thermostat setting data, if I agreed to set it to 78 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer: that might change my mind about sharing that data!

Companies are being pressed hard to track everything about you. Indeed, there’s a lot of money to be made in spying on customers. But when it comes to the Internet of Things, the Silicon Valley adage “If you’re not paying, you’re the product” might no longer hold true. When consumers are purchasing physical products, their buying power could change the dynamic. As pressure mounts to limit companies’ surveillance powers, consumer preference for Little Sister products might drive companies to choose to safeguard sensitive data.

Little Sister. A modest proposal worth trying.