Ubiquitous Commons: How To Regain Ownership Of Your Data In The Internet Of Things Era


Federico Guerrini, Contributor

April 16, 2015

From Facebook likes to tweets, from search queries to cell phone GPS signals, we all produce a lot of data, nowadays.

But do we keep control of them? By and large, we do not. Yes, there are privacy policies (which nobody reads), and national and international data retention laws that provide little or no real safeguards, as they don’t set up any reliable mechanism to make sure that their provisions are respected.

All is left to the good will of operators, which, to their credit, have made some efforts to make the way they manage their customers’ data more transparent, especially since the Snowden leaks came along.

Clearly, that’s not enough; there’ still a great disparity between data subjects and operators: the former cannot really understand what kind of information they are generating and also have now way to declare how they wish their data to be used. You cannot tell Facebook for instance: use my data for scientific purposes, or for civic ones, rather than marketing.

Enters Ubiquitous Commons, an international research project whose goal is to design a legal and technological toolkit that will allow people and organizations to be able to decide how the data they generate is used.

The project is the brainchild of Salvatore Iaconesi, an eclectic individual, a TED, Eisenhower and Yale World fellow and Oriana Persico, a communication scientist focusing on the creation of “empathic economies”, who are supported by a growing number of international partners.

The team is busy designing a technological (and legal) protocol in which access to information is freed from the control of large operators, such as government and corporations, and moved onto a peer-to-peer network in which no single theory is in control. This is not a purely theoretical concept but, Iaconesi and Persico maintain, it’s also technically feasible. Even better: it’s already in the works.

“We have developed a first working concept under the form of a browser plugin (with the first one being Chrome, and the next ones coming up),” Iaconesi says, “and we have just now started working on the possibility to implement the same type of technology in devices.”

“For example, we have successfully modified the firmware of a well-known wearable technology which is used all over the world to measure people’s running performances, to include Ubiquitous Commons: when data is captured from your body (heartbeat, location, etc.), it gets encrypted and assigned a user-generated license; then the information is sent to the servers and the license and decryption mechanism is placed onto the BlockChain. It is not fully working yet, but it’s going to be, soon.”

Much as I like to concept, I cannot help but wonder whether it’s kind of utopic. Giving people complete control of their data? It would be a radical change from where we are now, from the current business model based on exploiting users’ data.

Others have tried to propose something similar, Jaron Lanier among them (in “Who owns the future“), and on a smaller scale, some products were developed that promised users to keep control of their data. Think of the poor Diaspora, the would-be alternative to Facebook.

None of them worked, so far. So, why this should be different?

Iaconesi tries to soothe my doubts. He makes clear that the Ubiquitous Commons goal is not to radically subvert the current system – which would be probably wishful thinking. Rather, to make aware companies and consumers that an alternative is possible, and that it could actually be more advantageous for both of them.

“We think of U.C. as a transitional concept,” he says. “We tend to describe a transition, more than an utopia. This situation is a complex one: it has its palpable conflicts, at multiple levels. The transformations of jobs, education, consumption, collaboration and communication are not conflict-free, also supported in this by the recent scandals on surveillance, privacy, censorship, Facebook declaring hat it performs hundreds of thousands of experiments on all of its users each day, and many more similar issues”.

Paradoxically, all of these conflicts can constitute markets.

“One of the most interesting thing that a company, in this scenario, can do, is to become a weird type of activist, building its business model around some of these concerns and issues. Companies are starting to grasp the idea that the current user exploitation model can have a viable alternative, and that such an alternative could create the next market.” he adds.

Paired to this, is the awareness that the new scenarios of Big Data, of Internet of Things are intrinsically more efficient, cost-effective, resilient, secure, reliable and profitable when implemented according to peer-to-peer models and methodologies.

This, the Ubiquitous Commons team believes, might bring an additional incentive towards participation and collaboration to the project, and could create a fertile environment for a transition in which effective business models can be progressively combined to achieve a fairer distribution of wealth, more inclusive societies, and more diffused opportunities.

There’s still a long way to go, and the road is long and winding. There is little diffused literacy on the subject (apart from general, often blurry knowledge), and it’s quite difficult to communicate the concept to a mainstream audience.

“Right now we are developing user case scenarios, under the form of prototypes which work with a variety of devices, software products and online services. And we are exploring the legal implications of these types of actions, trying to give the first prototypal shape to the legal toolkit. The project is very young (3 months), but we are exceptionally pleased of the developments.”

This article was written by Federico Guerrini from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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