Data Privacy MyData

Why storytelling is key to advancing the ethical use of personal data

Johannes Ernst, CEO of Indie Computing and co-founder of MyData Silicon Valley, explains why in order to increase consumer trust in technology, we need more transparency on key issues such as privacy, and why a common narrative for the innovators in the space is crucial to advancing individual control over personal data.

You spoke about the importance of app trustworthiness at the last MyData conference. Can you explain a bit about that?

Yes. As users of technology, when we decide on whether to use a product, it’s important to us whether that product is trustworthy, or whether it just pretends to be. Will an app do what I expect it to do, or will it steal my data, spam my friends, or violate my privacy behind my back? Today, all we have is the word of the vendor – but we need to be certain that those assurances are true.

As an industry, we don’t have a mechanism by which we can be certain that a piece of technology does what it claims to do. That’s why I spoke about this issue at the MyData conference – it’s clear that this is a problem that negatively affects both users and vendors, and it needs solving.

To use a specific example: last year, when Covid contact tracing apps popped up everywhere, surveys indicated that privacy concerns were the number one reason why people wouldn’t install them. So some members of MyData Silicon Valley decided to take a closer look at as much implementation detail as possible of some of those Covid apps, to provide an independent assessment. We found everything from world-class privacy practices and very impressive transparency, to average or even sloppy work. The problem is that users cannot tell which is which.

As a result of this work, we identified some early approaches for best practices by which vendors can increase the trustworthiness of their products, most of which have to do with transparency and verifiability of assurances. They reach from publishing the source code, documenting development and operational processes, to independent reviews and disclosing financial and other stakeholders. While this is early work, it’s not something that can’t be done, it’s just that as an industry we haven’t spent much energy on it yet. I hope others will look at our work, and build on it.

How do we bring about change in the personal data industry?

Looking at what I’ve been working on for most of my life, it’s been about putting the individual at the centre of their electronic universe. This is a broader mission than just privacy, although it can’t be done without privacy. Probably just like you, I’d like to be able to have my personal data under my control, stored in a place of my choosing, sharing it only with who I want to – and then run the software that I choose on that data, so that I can accomplish what I want to accomplish in the way I want. And not lose my data either because some cloud service provider decided that I violated their terms of service, and closed my account.

That’s of course not the way most technology works today: the big tech companies hold all of our data in big, fortified castles in the cloud, make it hard for me to get it, and impossible to run software on it that I choose. And if they change their minds, next week it will be different, my favourite feature will be gone, and I have no say in the matter. This is not the world I want to live in.

Surveillance capitalism makes somewhere between €100bn and €1trillion in revenue worldwide, and in the privacy-protecting personal data industry, we need to be similarly ambitious, so we can take a significant chunk of the market share.

Historically it has been challenging for entrepreneurs world-wide to identify business propositions in that order of magnitude, which is why investors haven’t jumped in with both feet into this market. So one of our key challenges in the start-up ecosystem is to tell the story that a better world is possible, that this world is better for users and ethical vendors, and that it will make lots of money for investors. All companies telling more or less the same story can make it become an investment thesis, so that money starts flowing into this category.

Why is the MyData movement so important to accomplish this?

We are building something new here, and it takes a community to achieve that. It cannot be done by a single company, government, or project. It’s a bit like the early days of the personal computing industry back in the 1970s. The PC market took off once companies could start specialising – some in CPUs, some in graphics cards, some in application software, some in manufacturing– and the value proposition to the user became the sum of all the value propositions of all the companies.

We need a similar market architecture in the personal data space, and a community is crucial for this.

The single most important thing MyData has done is establish a place where like-minded people from many companies, countries, projects and backgrounds can find each other, get together and connect. In my mind, establishing those connections, and business relationships to follow, is a critical component to make this market real. MyData is quite unique and uniquely useful in this respect.

How will storytelling help?

People ultimately relate to stories. Stories about how things came to be, but also stories that outline a desirable future. Technology users worldwide largely agree on what they want the future to be, even if they don’t know the details or how to get there.

It falls to us as entrepreneurs and change agents to fill in the gaps, tell the story well, and in particularly tell the story well about how the better products and services we are developing are going to win in the marketplace.

We have not done a good job at that yet. Communities like MyData need to break what they do down from an aspirational vision to something that people can do on a day-to-day basis.

And we need to understand that consumers don’t want to just buy “privacy”. It’s a little bit like restaurants and cleanliness. Nobody ever goes to a restaurant because it is clean – you go there because there is good food! Cleanliness matters, but only if a lack of it prevents you from going there. So the question is: what’s the good food in our products? Let’s talk about that instead! But I do think we are beginning to make some progress. Stories, for example from MyData operators, are beginning to sound similar – and they did not a year ago. Once that happens, we know something has settled a bit, that investors are starting to hear the same story from multiple places, that customers are too – and so I am extremely optimistic for 2021.

Johannes Ernst is the founder and CEO of Indie Computing Corp and cofounder of the Silicon Valley MyData Hub