A plan for peace in the personal data war: Interview with Julian Ranger of digi.me
Starting wars is easy. It’s finishing them that’s difficult. What exactly is peace going to look like? How do you repair the damage? Can life really be the same again?
We are in the middle of a global war — a fight over who controls the staggering amounts of personal information each of us generates as we go about our always-on, connected digital lives. That’s worth fighting for because it has value. The more data we generate — and we are only going to create more and more — the more valuable each of us becomes as a resource to be mined.
Some don’t much care about this information and what happens to it. They might think the mad scramble for it doesn’t constitute a war at all. Others care very much indeed. What is beyond doubt is that while businesses care about the data and what it tells them, what’s really at issue here is privacy. Free-for-all pillaging of our personal data assumes that privacy is dead. However, the massive rise in the use of ad blockers and the numerous other ways people seek to avoid online tracking and targeting suggests that privacy is very much alive and worth fighting for.
Fighting the war on the privacy battlefield, though, is a waste of time. That’s the view of Julian Ranger, founder and chairman of digi.me, a platform that gives back personal data to the individual and allows them to bring it together in a way that makes it more than the sum of its parts. digi.me will soon allow people to then give organisations permission to share that aggregated information based on a suitable value proposition. These two distinct steps of first aggregating and then sharing are significant, as will become clear. At this point, it should be noted that digi.me is the founder and sponsor of the Internet of Me forum. The reason for that will, again, become clear.
You can win battles and still lose the war
The problem, says Julian, is that the war over privacy will only escalate even as individual battles are won. Technology such as ad blockers or legislation like the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will just prompt further manoeuvres by big corporations and the ad tech industry that supports them. And then there’s the problem of getting more than the angry minority to do something about it.
“There’s this strange paradox where people seem to care about privacy but carry on doing things that compromise it,” says Julian. “I think that’s because it’s all too difficult. People turn away and pretend to ignore it – we all do it.”
That doesn’t mean this is a war without end — far from it. Julian does have a vision for peace and one in which each side gets what it wants: the individual gets privacy while businesses get the personal data they need. It will take time and a simple, but fundamental, shift in who is in control of that data.
“At digi.me, when we talk about what the Internet of Me means to us we talk about utility — utility to you the individual getting your data back and then utility to businesses, government and society as a whole when we share it.
“We say that by doing it the way we at digi.me propose it is 100% private and it will enable a more private world. But there is this huge body of people who are not going to come to that way of thinking because they want to fix today’s privacy problems. I want to tell them this: we can’t. We can’t fix all those problems with a load of different point solutions. The model is so broken and busted that you can’t do it.”
The irresistible pull of the dark side
The problem, says Julian, is the way our personal data is gathered, used and abused by businesses desperate to gain insight into our lives and behaviours even if that means doing things that irritate, worry and anger us. He sees the scraping and wholesale trading of our data and the way it is used to track and target us as underhand and shifty. Even otherwise respectable companies do it because they feel they have little alternative, as they operate in a competitive environment where everyone’s at it. Catch-22.
“Think of us as individuals. We hate things being done behind our backs. I call what’s going on now on the web ‘surveillance capitalism’. It’s being done behind us: it’s not fully visible and so it’s like someone talking behind our backs. It is the dark side, we can’t see what’s going on.”
Julian sees it as one day being behind us in another sense — consigned to the past as an outmoded way of doing business.
“I see a true Internet of Me as being where I own and control my data and companies knock on the door to ask for it and I get to control who gets it — that’s all open and transparent. It’s the light side.”
The problems, though, run deep. Julian reels off the mind-boggling ways ad tech gathers and leverages our data as we go blithely about our digital lives, from cookies and super-cookies to apps that track you, from smartphone operating systems to the IDs placed in every packet of data a telco handles.
“It goes on and on and on,” he says. “I’m an expert and I can’t get my head around it. There are people in the ad industry who are the biggest customers for all this data they can’t get their heads round it. They don’t realise how many intermediaries there are.
“I call it warfare. You have all this tracking going on and a certain percentage of people deciding to do something about it, along with concerned companies like Mozilla and Apple. The thing is, with warfare you have a measure and then you have a counter measure, then a counter-counter measure and so on and so on. It gets hugely complex. What happens is only the most advanced powers can get to the top in the battlefield.
“There’s all of us poor souls trying to do things, deploying things like ad blockers but they don’t stop all the tracking. They stop some, but not all. And some of the ad blockers are selling out. Ads can be white-listed. So that doesn’t really work — it stops only the most pernicious things.
“So it’s warfare — every time we put in a point solution to fix the privacy problem we can’t stop it, because the economics mean this whole thing has momentum. And there’s enough money in it for somebody to come up with another counter-measure.”
Wars don’t respect laws
Governments are stepping in to protect people, says Julian, who wholeheartedly supports the EU GDPR as legislation that will go some way to redressing the balance and bolstering the powers of the individual. Laws and regulations that focus on tackling immediate aspects of protecting privacy won’t, though, solve the bigger problem. They won’t end the war.
“If we spend all our effort trying to solve what’s happening behind us we’re not going to get there. So what are we trying to do? Our view of an Internet of Me is that you just take your data back yourself. It’s not really about the tracking and all of that. Take the data back yourself and it will be more useful to you — you can do more with it. And that’s a really compelling benefit.
“Then companies can come and knock on your door and ask for your data and it’s up to you whether to allow them to use it or not, depending on the value proposition on offer.”
So back to that Catch-22. The companies doing the data scraping and other ‘behind-the-back’ practices create the market. Businesses come and buy that data because it’s pretty much all that’s on offer and, crucially, their rivals are probably using it. That guarantees a steady stream of customers and the data arms race continues to escalate to stay ahead of consumer attempts to dodge the bullets. It becomes hard, if not impossible, for a company to disarm unilaterally even if they are well-intentioned peaceniks at heart. It’s not illegal so they do it, even if they feel they shouldn’t.
“This tracking and targeting isn’t all that effective but it’s better than nothing. And if something’s better than zero it can still be worth a lot of money. The companies who want to work with digi.me aren’t scrapers but might be buying the scrapers’ data. We’ve made the case to them that the data they have isn’t very good but, yes, it’s better than nothing.
“However we say that if they go to the individual they can get rich data — wider, deeper, 100% accurate, normalised (in our case) and fully permissioned. They can use this data to create greater engagement and trust, and to innovate. As companies understand this they’re going to realise they are currently paying a lot for poor data when they could pay less money for this rich data and get better results from it.”
So what’s everyone waiting for?
“There is inertia. The Internet of Me won’t happen overnight. You can’t change business processes that quickly. This isn’t going to take one or two years, more like two to five years for a large number of companies to change. But I really do believe that when it comes to establishing a true Internet of Me it’s a case of when, not if.
According to Julian, this is how this shift will play out: As the warfare gets more and more expensive for less and less data, the money spent on the ‘dark side’ will decrease. That money goes from being behind us to being in front.
Ad tech companies running very expensive systems will see the economics tilt out of their favour, with the money draining away until there is a tipping point after which the old ‘dark’ ways are no longer viable.
“That’s how we solve the privacy problem,” says Julian. “Not by point solutions but by an economic shift. The heart of the matter is money. If we put all the effort into making the Internet of Me work then all of this ‘behind the back’ activity will disappear in a heartbeat.”
Lighting the way to peace
So, how to overcome the inertia and start moving towards that utopian tipping point? The key, says Julian, is to unlock the true value of data for individuals. Show them the utility and they will kick-start the process in a way that businesses won’t because their focus is only on the financial value.
“You bring all the data back for the individual and you make it useful for them. If the person understands the power of data they have in their hands, then they’ll begin to understand what people will give them for it. We want people to share that data, but in full knowledge of what they’re getting in return. But the first step is to understand it for themselves.
Then businesses can come to you for the data because you’ve already got it. Otherwise it’s too much of a leap. If a business has to provide you value and then you’ve got to go and get the data for that value, it won’t happen.
“You’ve got to take people in steps — show them the power of the data when they have it themselves. Some companies are trying to do that — there’s us and companies like Meeco, for example. When the individual has their data, companies will come and ask and it moves up a level.
“Then you get one or two companies starting to show you value and it goes up another level. Others see what’s happening and then you get more companies chasing that value, and then more, and so on. At this point the behind-back dark side will still be big, but there will be less and less money in it. As more companies deal with us in front, the race will really start until there is no money in the dark side.
“The tipping point comes a bit later when it becomes an unsustainable loss of revenue to the dark side. When that implodes everybody is now in the new way, in the light. Then you get the innovation explosion.
“So we’re not fixing privacy, but the Internet of Me will. It enables a more private world. digi.me is an enabler of the Internet of Me which, in turn, enables a more private world.”
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Internet of Me is supported and sponsored by digi.me