Why We Need Personal Data Management Systems

Privacy and data management platforms are being built on the foundations that GDPR has laid. While true privacy may now seem like a utopian dream, new innovations in personal data management are starting to give users more control over how their data are exposed and commoditized online. Nonetheless, there's still a long way to go.

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Image of a piece of paper that has a checkbox that says
Illustration: © IoT For All

Data has been at the central point of society for as long as we can remember, but never before has it been created and collected on such a mass scale. For consumer, this is inherently problematic.

General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in Europe were designed to protect and empower all EU citizens data privacy and reshape the way organizations across Europe approach data privacy. This means companies no longer own your data but rather look after it, therefore ‘giving back control’ to the consumer. But little has been done to actually put this into practice.

Realistically, very little has really changed for the consumer without the establishment of tools that enable functionality of such claims. This is because a shift in mindset is also necessary for society to remember data-sharing of this scale should not be normalized. A public-facing tool, or platform, is therefore crucial for any meaningful application of GDPR.

You’ve heard it before: digital footprints are large, insightful, and when you’re not overtly aware of how information is being used, they’re influential. The scariest thing of all, however, is that the data version of you is unavoidable today.

Email Addresses Are the Key

Email addresses were once a tool for communicating across the internet, but now they are the key to digital life. How many free ebooks have you downloaded? Or streaming service trials have you signed up to, before hitting unsubscribe instead of asking the company to delete you from their database entirely?

Every time you give away your personal details, a bit of you is plucked away and investigated. Data is shared, sold and bought like any other commodity. Companies build up an aggregated picture of you and, bit by bit, your persona is transferred to a database until there’s nothing left to hide.

Giving up personal privacy to use online services should not be an ultimatum.

Although GDPR promises companies must have a water-tight consent system in place, a pre-ticked box or service-for-information trade-off is likely to generate a few more leads before anyone catches on.

This is where zero party data comes from. According to the new regulations, data that is proactively shared with companies, rather than through a third-party in the data-ecosystem, is allowed to be collected. Zero party data often stems that service-for-information tactic, and although this may well change the face of marketing owing to its mutually beneficial nature, any privacy trade-off is still problematic.

Data Is Becoming Our Most Valuable Asset

We’ve come a long way since technologically fuelled data-hungry strategies became mainstream. As a result, the notion of privacy feels utopian. Hope, however, isn’t lost. A consumer data management platform may bring the idea into realism.

Businesses around the globe regard data as their most valuable asset, but somehow consumers haven’t tuned into this thinking as of yet. Although optimistic that public concern for how their data is used has increased, a core problem remains that privacy and data are confusing.

UK-based startup Fair Custodian is one example of how we might address the problem of putting the need for a simplified tool which put GDPR into practice. They’ve launched a beta data management platform.  

The Fair Custodian website generates unique disposable email addresses for consumers to use instead of their personal contacts. This means that when signing up for free WiFi, newsletters, or shopping online, users don’t need to worry about how personal data is used.

There are currently a significant number of throw-away email address services, but I think that the way Fair Custodian allows you to control several emails simultaneously and interact with mail as you would in your own personal account is a good direction for competitors to follow.

I think that Fair Custodian is on the right track. We need a full-scale platform solution by which citizens can manage their data exposure.

The extent of the problem has also been identified by Microsoft, who is said to be working on its own data-bank, ‘Bali’.

Bali’s ‘About’ page describes it as a “new personal data bank which puts users in control of all data collected about them… The bank will enable users to store all data (raw and inferred) generated by them. It will allow the user to visualize, manage, control, share and monetize the data.”

Is it right for Microsoft to be getting into the privacy game? Perhaps a centralized data platform is better suited to a solution-based startup—be it Fair Custodian or some other startup—rather than a service provided by a company who is arguably part of the corporate elite that fuels a system of consumerism and hyper-targeted marketing.

The Problems That Lie Ahead

Scalability and implementation are likely to be problems as well. We need to find a way to limit conflicting corporate interests in consumer data management platforms.

A voluntary model is unlikely to work either. Large businesses will doubtfully sign up, but for smaller business, demonstrating transparency may actually benefit their brand. A customer-focused data management system definitely feels like an inevitable step, but perhaps legislation is needed to make it stick.

Any solution-based ideas are welcome at this stage. FairCustodian’s working beta is crucial—the startup is laying the first round of bricks to foundations that GDPR dug. Microsoft’s actions are important for the mainstream privacy debate, and perhaps act as a catalyst for other corporations to consider more transpranency.

Tasmin Lockwood
Tasmin is a writer and journalist from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, with a degree in Journalism combined with Sociology and a masters degree in News Journalism. She loves anything techy; from fibre in the ground to Amazon Alexa's privacy policy.