TECH TALK

In the digital realm, you are your data. Who owns that (and therefore you)?

The answer to that question from a legal viewpoint, varies depending on where you live.  In this country, it’s pretty much anyone but you.  In the European Union, it’s somewhat closer to you but still not exactly you.  You have the right to see what’s being kept and modify incorrect things. You have the right to be forgotten to some extent.  In this county, none of those things are what you have rights to, inherent or otherwise.

This state of affairs is largely the result of “click wrap.” All those privacy agreement notices that you click right through to get to the Good Stuff, basically give whoever it is, be it Google, Facebook, Apple or Musicians Friend, complete control and rights to do pretty much whatever it is they want with your data.  And they do.

The problem here is that the upsides to this transaction, from your perspective, are too tempting and the downsides to that are so removed from your experience (so far), that it’s plenty easy to sell your digital self into slavery for the baubles you obtain now.  Don’t feel bad; it’s almost impossible to not do that and still exist in the digital world at all.

This state of affairs is, by the way, about to get geometrically worse as we are embarking on making the entire planet a giant robot basically, when we get real uptake on the Internet of Things (IoT).  Instead of a reasonably few things tracking what you do with whom, we’ll have a hundred or a thousand times more things do it.  All that data goes somewhere to be sorted through by something and presented to someone.

We do this because there is no alternative at this point and governments have been very slow to act on the problem.  What if there was a different direction that a person could take?

Enter none other than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Sir Tim has been percolating this question for some time while working at MIT and thinks he’s come up with an answer.  So sure is he that he has started a company to commercialize this whole concept and bring it into common use.  The concept is called Solid and is a derivative of the phrase “Social Linked Data.”  Programmers love acronyms...

They also love standards and building blocks because programmers are a lazy lot and we will take the easy way if offered one; building blocks allow quick code reuse so that you don’t have to spend time doing something that’s already been done and standards create the path for those building blocks to interoperate.  All that makes building complicated software easier and more secure in a lot less time.

Solid is therefore not a thing per se but a set of standards overlain on existing commonly used Internet standards used in data storage and retrieval.  Stay with me an we’ll circle back to why that matters.  First let’s talk about data.

Your digital footprint is data stored somewhere.  Lots of somewheres actually. Every one of those places is different and has a different set of rules called Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to talk to them.  The structures are whatever the company that built the database needs for themselves and permissions to it are granted however it is that the company grants them and for whatever reason it does it.  And that involves Click Wrap contracts just like it does for you.

Now if we have not one or ten but a thousand things wanting to talk to this sort of mechanism, the act of dealing with non-standardized connections like that quickly becomes overwhelming; it doesn’t scale well because the entirety of things today is built on the premise of someone talking to it rather than something talking to it.

This is where Solid comes in.  If you can provide a standard, easy way to connect to data that scales and is secure, a programmer will take it.  What Solid does, then, is decentralize data by centralizing it and makes it too easy to do it that way to ignore.

Add to this the central implementation idea that you own that database, not Facebook or whoever.  All this data goes into a thing they call a “pod” that captures all this data.  You own it; you control it.  You let whatever access the data. So, if your toaster has to talk to your bread maker, you allow that to happen with the particular bits of data that it needs to run and no more. If you want Facebook to know about your vacation to Mars, you can allow Facebook to know about your vacation. Or not.

The thing here is that the computer access to these “pods” is standardized using standard off the shelf tools and techniques so it leverages what is going on now to generate personal data that you control. Instead of one great big central database, each person has a smaller one of their own – decentralized data.

Not that you’ll probably want to run the servers yourself unless you really like doing that sort of thing. No, you’ll probably farm that off to some service provider like you would for domain names or cell phone numbers.  The good news here is that if you aren’t liking how that service provider is working, you can change it.  It’s your data, do with it what you want.

Will this Honey Pot Gambit work? I don’t know but I think it’s got a shot at it; programmers take the path of least resistance.  If there is an easier way than handing data to Google, they’ll take it.

The problems we face soon aren’t so much from the existing players as from your refrigerator, your doorbell and your thermostat. In a world where everything is a computer and everything is connected and talking about you, your data is you.  Pods are a great way to solve that problem.

Editor's note: Tech Talk is a monthly online column by Randy Lee. Trained in Nuclear Engineering, Randy has been working the bleeding edge of various fields of technology for over 40 years.

(Copyright © 2020 APG Media)

Load comments