Revisiting the Future of Privacy — The Rise of the Identity Data Provider (IDP)

A new look at how individuals can regain control and monetize their data.

Co-written by Daniel Charboneau

Pixabay: TheDigitalArtist

In 2014, Daniel Charboneau and I described a new method of information brokerage — one where individual users have the ability to own, secure and transact their information through an entity called an Identity Data Provider (IDP). Now four year later, we’ve decided to revisit our initial thoughts, share what we’ve learned, and provide some guidance for the market.

What is an Identity Data Provider?

An Identity Data Provider (IDP) is a third-party organization that stores all of your personal data and acts as a medium between you and online service providers like Facebook, Twitter & Google. Think of an IDP as a broker that works for you to manage all of your online information. IDP’s will enable you to control who can use your information such as what you liked, who you shared information with, who you interact with, what services you use.

Why do we need an IDP?

Today, users — more specifically, their data — continue to be the product that subsidizes freemium business models, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. This also creates an environment where misuse can take place, as we’ve seen in the Cambridge Analytica Scandal that Facebook is currently navigating through. Unfortunately, Cambridge Analytica is only the tip of the iceberg and many other platform companies are now scrambling to institute better individual data safeguards. The problem is that these new safeguards are only treating the symptoms of a broken system. An IDP provides inverts the current model and provides a number of strong benefits:

  • Privacy & Security: It’s safe to assume that you do not own anything you post on any website that is not owned or controlled by you. Privacy is at the core of an IDP, and users gain the ability to decide what level of information to expose to third-parties.
  • Personalized Experiences: Currently, every website and online service that you visit treats you the same. It knows nothing about you when first visit and only learns about you based on what you provide or your future interactions. It cannot access or learn from any of your other online interactions. An IDP would enable you to take your previous interactions or an interest-graph, and let a new software optimize the experience around you from day one.
  • Data Portability: You cannot take your data with you today if you decide to move from one platform to another, but an IDP would enable you to seamless transition your data from one platform to another.
  • Internet of Things (IoT): Hyperconnectivity and sensors will continue to generate massive amounts of data about us that is currently silo’d into individual web products and services. IDPs enable data from IoT to be transacted while maintaining individual user privacy.

What’s changed since 2014?

Two words — A lot. In 2014, we didn’t have a framework or infrastructure we could point to as a starting point for an IDP, but with the rise of the blockchain — the underlying infrastructure for bitcoin — we now have a frontrunner. The rise of the bitcoin blockchain has also lead to a number of other alternative blockchains, such as Ethereum, that can be leveraged as an underlying infrastructure for an IDP’s emergence. It is also becoming evident that we’re not alone in our thinking of blockchain’s potential to reshape how we manage our personal information.

There are also numerous startups that we can now point to trying to build models similar to an IDP using the blockchain such as Personal BlackBox, HACERA, and Blockstack. We’ve encouraged by what we see, but challenges still remain with architecture, interoperability and ultimately — the ability to scale access to the technology. As we’ve seen with blockchain pilots in government, it takes a network in order to extract value from leveraging a decentralized infrastructure — so we explore some potential networks below that could be a foundation.

Other potential paths

In addition to individual startups and academic approaches, there are also a few untraditional paths with pre-existing networks and infrastructure that could be a basis for an IDP:

Mozilla — Mozilla and their non-profit foundation, have played a major part in the development and adoption of open-source web technologies, including the most recent announcement around Project Things. Mozilla would also have the ability to make their browser a de facto IDP for any data or signals transmitted using it.

Salesforce — Salesforce has been in the business of managing customer relationships for companies for some time, and one potential angle would be to apply their platform infrastructure to individuals — enabling an individual to manage their data and relationships with companies. Becoming something that Dan and I refer to as an Individual Relationship Management (IRM) system.

Consortium of State Government Agencies — Today, state government agencies rely on a number of third-party companies to host complex identity management systems that vary from state-to-state. One potential idea is for state governments to collaborate on a permissioned-blockchain for citizen identity management — one that is not owned by a corporate entity or one state alone — but by each individual. This consortium-enabled identity could be the foundation of an IDP that users could leverage to interface with other entities and government services.

Where we go from here

There are many paths forward that we can take to give rise to an IDP, and in the wake of the privacy scandals of today — it’s clear users demand something different. Users alone cannot create the infrastructure necessary for an IDP, but foundations and mission-driven organizations have an opportunity and responsibility to create this decentralize infrastructure. From our discussions with Fortune 100 companies, government agencies, and leading privacy advocates, here are a few structural components we recommend for IDPs:

A different ownership model — An IDP must be abstracted from the interest of a corporate organization and should not be owned or controlled by one entity alone. We feel a mission-driven organization can set in place the foundation, but in the end must not have a controlling stake.

Open, decentralized and permissioned — An IDP must be open, decentralized and permissioned. It should be a platform for individuals to manage all of their signals, not for businesses to mine them. We agree with experts like Morgan Wright, that the permissioned nature of an IDP can be facilitated through a structure similar to ICANN.

Not a singular thing — There will not necessarily be one IDP to rule them all, but potentially a host of IDPs that all serve specific purposes and networks. There will need to be standards to maintain interoperability in how data is transacted across the Internet and between disparate IDPs.

Secure-by-design — By leveraging infrastructure like the blockchain, user data should be secured through the cryptographic nature of the platform by default.

Let’s do this

The next step for user privacy is not a new suite of privacy controls, it’s a fundamental flip of the data ownership model. We don’t have all the answers on building this infrastructure, but the beauty of the web is that there’s a network of people that can connect with disparate ideas to make things that seem impossible — like Linux — become a reality. Will you join us on this journey? Drop us a note and let’s do this.

Numerous conversations helped make this post possible: Special thanks to Morgan Wright, Corey Marshall and others who listened and provided valuable feedback on codifying these thoughts. Thanks also to Jeff Rawlings for making the Ethereum connection on our original post in 2014.