How to get a slice of the PIE

Toni Sekinah, freelance writer

Here are two concepts you might need to get familiar with if you want a slice of the personal information economy (PIE) - “growth through trust” and “self-sovereign identity”. 

The first is a guiding principle laid down by Elizabeth Denham, appointed to the role of UK Information Commissioner in July, in her maiden public speaking engagement. The second comes from Timothy Ruff, chief executive of Evernym, an open source global identity solution provider. Both were speaking at the PIE 2016 conference on 29th September, organised by Ctrl-Shift.

Denham told the audience of entrepreneurs, industry figures, business leaders and innovators that consumer trust is essential in achieving growth. “Trust can assist you in gaining a competitive advantage,” she said, underscoring the theme of the conference, “Achieving growth through trust”.

Furthermore, she instructed company owners to be open, honest and transparent with their users, stating that businesses have to “take people with them” in whichever direction they take their data.

Denham told the conference that her objective for her five-year term as Information Commissioner was to build a culture of data confidence in the UK, with consumers having much more confidence in organisations’ use of personal data. This was in the light of an ICO survey that found that just one in four people in the UK trust businesses with their data.

One point might be particularly interesting to DataIQ readers in the light of the call for custodial sentences for data privacy rule breakers. Denham said that, as an independent regulator, she would use the “stick” of fines as punishment to those who flout data privacy regulation. (A week later, she issued TalkTalk with a record £400,000 fine for security failings that led to customers’ details being hacked.)

She went on to say that investigations will be chosen carefully so that they are relevant to the public and would have results that cascade across the sector, suggesting that she is a willing to make examples of rule-breakers as a deterrent to others. Denham also admitted that, while Brexit makes her job more challenging as it has thrown ICO data protection plans into a state of flux, she is prepared for it.

She ended by saying that privacy and innovation were not opposing forces - they could be used together to the benefit of consumers and businesses. Denham concluded with the statement: “We can and must have privacy and innovation.”

Earlier in the day, Ruff had the conference hall buzzing with enthusiasm after explaining the concept of “self-sovereign identity”. He said the concept of building a public and permissioned identity platform was about giving users not just control, but ownership. Ruff said until now online identities had evolved from being centralised to federated to user-centric. “We have come to self-sovereign,” he noted.  

The need for this shift ws evident in the welcome address, given by Ctrl-Shift co-founder Linda Brandt, who introduced the concept of the Me2B economy. She said that, in the wake of the growth of the personal information economy, the Me2B commercial model - a two-way channel of communication between businesses and individuals - was blossoming.

But as Ruff later noted, the Me2B model was impeded by individuals having too many “Mes” or online identities, with the average person having 45. “The information economy has shown us over the last several decades that information has value. But what we’ve learned recently is that when you add personal to information, the value starts to really accelerate,” said Ruff.

He explained the underlying platform for self-sovereign identities - distributed ledger technology, similar to the blockchain technology behind Bitcoin. The technology allows self-sovereign identities to be technically possible as it breaks up identification data into small pieces (“blocks”) which are split up and rejoined (“chain”) when identity needs to be verified. 

As big as this concept is, Ruff’s talk contained even bigger news in the announcement that his company, Evernym, had given the IP for the Sovrin Identity Network to the non-for-profit Sovrin Foundation. The mission of the foundation is to give everyone an identity they can fully own and control.

The Sovrin Identity Network launched with a host of partners, including Digi.me, a personal identity management service (PIMS). The founder of Digi.me, Julian Ranger and the chief executives of three other PIMS - Nick Oliver from People.io, Katryna Dow of Meeco and Steven Pimblett from Wejo - discussed the new opportunities in the digital economy during one of the afternoon break-out sessions.

Ranger told the room that his company aimed to solve the inefficiency in personal data aggregation and provide a means to ask for that data in a value exchange. Representatives from ten other PIMS, including Kybe, a platform that uses artificial and social intelligence to allow users to share their info with brands, and Cozy, an open source personal cloud could also be found in the Innovation Showcase, showing how much investment is currently being made into this space.

Perhaps one of the most eagerly-anticipated keynote speakers at the event was Facebook’s Stephen Deadman. The global deputy chief privacy officer of the social network, who called himself a “policy wonk”, told delegates that he spends most of his time worrying about data and questions of trust and compliance.

Like Denham, he commented on the risk of conflict between privacy and innovation. “If you get more than one, you get less of the other. If you want more trust and more privacy, you are going to get less innovation and growth. That seems to be a very undesirable trade-off,” he said.

To find out if both sides could complement each other, Facebook collaborated with Ctrl-Shift on a global project. “We ran 21 roundtables in Europe, North and South America, and Asia with 175 experts to ask how to create the sustainable growth of the information economy, with trust for the consumer and opportunities for innovation and growth,” he said.

The result was five “eye-opening” shifts that need to take place to move towards a sustainable model of services that also build trust for consumers:

1.People need to be educated on data, but with a focus on familiarisation. 

2. Value exchanges need to result in people having more power and control so they feel they are on an equal footing with the companies they are working with.

3. There needs to be smart regulation that recognises users are becoming empowered.

4. Companies need to shift from compliance to sustainable business practices.

5. Companies need to move from good intentions to good measurable outcomes. 

According to Deadman, “at Facebook, we have large teams of engineers, researchers and programmers looking at the way our product is built to give people control and use of their information, and that is driven by our desire to serve those individuals.” The key takeaways from the report for Deadman are that individuals have to be at the centre, and that increasing individuals’ control of their data leads to more value. 

One counter-challenge to the PIE trend is how far organisations will be willing to go with the shift. As Doc Searls, academic and author of “The Intention Economy”, wondered, would companies be willing to accept the terms and conditions of their users. 

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