Lessons from Cambridge Analytica: one way to protect your data

Julia Apostle in the Financial Times: “The unsettling revelations about how data firm Cambridge Analytica surreptitiously exploited the personal information of Facebook users is yet another demoralising reminder of how much data has been amassed about us, and of how little control we have over it.

Unfortunately, the General Data Protection Regulation privacy laws that are coming into force across Europe — with more demanding consent, transparency and accountability requirements, backed by huge fines — may improve practices, but they will not change the governing paradigm: the law labels those who gather our data as “controllers”. We are merely “subjects”.

But if the past 20 years have taught us anything, it is that when business and legislators have been too slow to adapt to public demand — for goods and services that we did not even know we needed, such as Amazon, Uber and bitcoin — computer scientists have stepped in to fill the void. And so it appears that the realms of data privacy and security are deserving of some disruption. This might come in the form of “self-sovereign identity” systems.

The theory behind self-sovereign identity is that individuals should control the data elements that form the basis of their digital identities, and not centralised authorities such as governments and private companies. In the current online environment, we all have multiple log-ins, usernames, customer IDs and personal data spread across countless platforms and stored in myriad repositories.

Instead of this scattered approach, we should each possess the digital equivalent of a wallet that contains verified pieces of our identities. We can then choose which identification to share, with whom, and when. Self-sovereign identity systems are currently being developed.

They involve the creation of a unique and persistent identifier attributed to an individual (called a decentralised identity), which cannot be taken away. The systems use public/private key cryptography, which enables a user with a private key (a string of numbers) to share information with unlimited recipients who can access the encrypted data if they possess a corresponding public key.

The systems also rely on decentralised ledger applications like blockchain. While key cryptography has been around for a long time, it is the development of decentralised ledger technology, which also supports the trading of cryptocurrencies without the involvement of intermediaries, that will allow self-sovereign identity systems to take off. The potential uses for decentralised identity are legion and small-scale implementation is already happening. The Swiss municipality of Zug started using a decentralised identity system called uPort last year, to allow residents access to certain government services. The municipality announced it will also use the system for voting this spring….

Decentralised identity is more difficult to access and therefore there is less financial incentive for hackers to try. Self-sovereign identity systems could eliminate many of our data privacy concerns while empowering individuals in the online world and turning the established data order on its head. But the success of the technology depends on its widespread adoption….(More)