Big Brother is watching you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it – by wresting back control of your data.
Everything we do online generates information about us. The tacit deal is that we swap this data for free access to services like Gmail. But many people are becoming uncomfortable about companies like Facebook and Google hoarding vast amounts of our personal information – particularly in the wake of revelations about the intrusion of the US National Security Agency (NSA) into what we do online. So computer scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created software that lets users take control.
OpenPDS was designed in MIT’s Media Lab by Sandy Pentland and Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye. They say it disrupts what NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden called the “architecture of oppression”, by letting users see and control any third-party requests for their information – whether that’s from the NSA or Google.
If you want to install an app on your smartphone, you usually have to agree to give the program access to various functions and to data on the phone, such as your contacts. Instead of letting the apps have direct access to the data, openPDS sits in between them, controlling the flow of information. Hosted either on a smartphone or on an internet-connected hard drive in your house, it siphons off data from your phone or computer as you generate it.
It can store your current and historical location, browsing history, content and information related to sent and received emails, and any other personal data required. When external applications or services need to know things about you to provide a service, they ask openPDS the question, and it tells them the answer – if you allow it to. People hosting openPDS at home would always know when entities like the NSA request their data, because the law requires a warrant to access data stored in a private home.
Pentland says openPDS provides a technical solution to an issue the European Commission raised in 2012, when it declared that people have the right to easier access to and control of their own data. “I realised something needed to be done about data control,” he says. “With openPDS, you control your own data and share it with third parties on an opt-in basis.”
Storing this information on your smartphone or on a hard drive in your house are not the only options. ID3, an MIT spin-off, is building a cloud version of openPDS. A personal data store hosted on US cloud servers would still be secretly searchable by the NSA, but it would allow users to have more control over their data, and keep an eye on who is using it.
“OpenPDS is a building block for the emerging personal data ecosystem,” says Thomas Hardjono, the technical lead of the MIT Consortium for Kerberos and Internet Trust, a collection of the world’s largest technology companies who are working together to make data access fairer. “We want people to have equitable access to their data. Today, AT&T and Verizon have access to my GPS data, but I don’t.”
Other groups also think such personal data stores are a good idea. A project funded by the European Union, called digital.me, focuses on giving people more control over their social networks, and the non-profit Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium advocates for individuals’ right to control their own data.
OpenPDS is already being put to use. Massachusetts General Hospital wants to use the software to protect patient privacy for a program called CATCH. It involves continuously monitoring variables including glucose levels, temperature, heart rate and brain activity, as well as smartphone-based analytics that can give insight into mood, activity and social connections. “We want to begin interrogating the medical data of real people in real time in real life, in a way that does not invade privacy,” says Dennis Ausiello, head of the hospital’s department of medicine.
OpenPDS will help people keep a handle on their own data, but getting back information already in private hands is a different matter. “As soon as you give access to that raw data, there’s no way back,” says de Montjoye.
(Written by Hal Hodson and first appeared in New Scientist issue 2937)