Digital identity ecosystems in the context of Big data and mass surveillance
During the last few years, the internet economy has been mainly developing using a business model that offers services for free to the end users, but at the same time creates profits by mining, aggregating, and selling personal and social data for commercial and surveillance purposes. Therefore, the lives of internet users are continuously electronically tracked, analysed, clustered and segmented in profiles and graphs: personal data as a commodity for the "markets of identity", with large implications on the users’ privacy and the rights related to personal data.
Under the quest for secure identities, governments, banks, social media platforms and many specialist communities have been driving the technical aspects of online and digital identities to become more sophisticated and able to record, analyse, and eventually monetise everything we do. In the research carried out by D-CENT, “Research on Digital Identity Ecosystems” a concrete analysis of the latest evolution of the Digital Identity ecosystem in the Big Data context is presented alongside economic, political and technical alternatives to develop an identity ecosystem that respects citizens’ rights, privacy and data protection.
As explained in the D-CENT research, in order to establish a competitive advantage in the market it is critical for companies to collect and analyse vast quantities of personal information. However, the financial and technical resources required for gathering and managing such massive amount of information is leading to the formation of global digital oligopolies. Companies such as Google and Facebook may have improved competitiveness, efficiency, and access to knowledge, but in their accumulation logic based on a new economic model defined by intense data extraction, data analysis, continuous monitoring, and prediction they are representing a new form of capitalism, namely “surveillance capitalism”.
The growing market of citizens’ data, which is creating an identity marketplace is harvested not only by the big tech brands but by other hundreds of lesser-known companies that are building all sort of analytics, trading personalised ads in real time and providing other ancillary services for a variety of industrial sectors.
On the flip side of the coin, governments have also increased the intensity of their surveillance to an unprecedented level, and even with the massive amount of data held by private companies, states maintain the largest databases of personal information. The documents leaked by US whistleblower Edward Snowden have brought to light the unprecedented mass surveillance schemas that governments are engaging in. Comprehensive surveillance is the way in which both the corporate world and governments are now operating and allows the two to cooperate in programs such as Prism: where the NSA and FBI have direct access to data from some of the major tech companies including Google, Apple and Facebook.
Alongside mass surveillance, data commodification is the other worrying aspect of the Big Data. While public actors have so far promoted the availability of open data to enhance the measurement and understanding of our societies and environments, and to enhance transparency and accountability, private actors have focused on the value of personal data, promoting the commodification of identities with the hope of developing highly personalised services that can be charged at high premiums. As highlighted by the D-CENT research, we are now witnessing the emergence of Public-Private data partnerships, specifically in the field of health data, which has led to the emergence of an “identity market”, where personal data is increasingly treated as a valuable commodity. Within this market “data brokers”, who collect and aggregate consumer information for individual profiling, play a key role.
The research conducted by D-CENT presents empirical case studies in the field of the sharing economy, data broker industry, public service provision, political profiling and the personal data market in e-education. In spite of the evolving field of the digital economy, some trends can already be analysed.
- The introduction of private actors for the management of political profiling and, digital identity assurance programs or e-education platforms has blurred the borders between public and private identity management.
- Whilst the advantage of private actors is undeniable, it is also apparent how often market interests are at odds with regulatory principles. There is a conflict between the goals of business models that lead the economic activities of data brokers and the privacy principles that guide the corresponding regulations.
- Although data brokers are not a recent phenomenon there has recently been a transformation of the data brokerage market, due to the evolving technologies like Big Data or the Internet of Things that are affecting the value chain and their business models. Even though there are no actual identifiable and quantifiable revenue models yet, new frameworks are emerging, which will play a significant role in the potential futures of the digital economy and the identity market.
In the current digital world, the ability to gather data about individuals, build more complete personal profiles and generate insights is more than a privacy and freedom conundrum, it has shown to be a tool for potential discrimination based on class profiles. Above all, for ordinary people who provide the data that fuels the Big Data, it is unclear whether the benefits that arise are equally distributed. This has been leading to growing concerns over what happens with the personal information, and for many years there has been a wide discussion about the possibility of adopting an Internet Bill of Rights, and debates have produced a considerable number of proposals.
For instance, Tim Berners-Lee together with juridical and legal scholars advocate for an online Magna Carta, which should include the protection of personal data but also access, neutrality, integrity and inviolability of IT systems and domains. The need to consider the access to the Internet as a fundamental right of individuals is stressed (Tim Berners-Lee compared it to the access to water), as an essential guarantee against any form of censorship and indirect limitations. As emphasised by the Italian jurist Stefano Rodotà, the perspective of a Declaration of Internet rights aims at developing through new procedures the constitutional rules fundamental for allowing the Internet to keep its main feature as a place of freedom and democracy.
People must reclaim the sovereignty on their digital person, since identity is a key issue for the free development of one’s personality. To face the problem of digital identities and personal information in the context of Big Data and mass surveillance technical solutions are not enough. The D-CENT research formulates a combination of technical, political, economic and juridical solutions
open standards for identity and anonymity, cryptographic tools, security, decentralisation and blockchains that need to be implemented alongside economic, juridical and policy alternatives.
In order to preserve trust, privacy and data ownership in today’s big data environments there is a need to have access data to advance alternative economic strategies to manage data and knowledge as commons, to provide explicit consent and open licensing, to develop tools for citizens to control and own their data, and to establish fair terms of services. Ther key aspects include the right to the informational self-determination, neutrality, integrity and inviolability of IT systems and domains, rights and guarantees of people on Internet platforms, interoperability, right to knowledge and education, and control over Internet governance. Contemporarily to these economic alternatives policy strategies need to support responsible innovation, enhance privacy and data protection by design and promote international standards against mass surveillance.
If these technical recommendations are followed by future developers of identity ecosystems and have a mutually beneficial relationship with a legal and policy framework that upholds rights such as that of data protection, rather than be a honey-pot for surveillance, together with an economic strategy that favours public good over financial profits, an identity ecosystem that is truly user- centric and based on the fundamental right of autonomy of data can be established by Europe.