PersonalData.IO is a free and open platform for citizens to track their personal data and understand how it is used by companies. It is part of the MyData movement, promoting a human-centric approach to personal data management.
A lot of readers of this blog will be familiar with Freedom of Information laws, a legal mechanism that forces governments to be more open. Individuals, journalists, startups and other actors can use this “right-to-know” to understand what the government is doing and try to make it function better. There are even platforms that help facilitate the exercise of this right, like MuckRock, WhatDoTheyKnow or FragDenStaat. These platforms also have an education function around information rights.
In Europe we enjoy a similar right with respect to personal data held by private companies, but it is often very hard to exercise it. We want to change that, with PersonalData.IO.
Image credit: Kevin O’Connor (CC BY)
What is personal data?
In European law, the definition of personal data is extremely broad: `any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person`. Unlike in the U.S., the concept of identifiability is crucial in defining personal data, and ever-expanding to match technical possibilities: if some intermediate identifier (license plate, cookie, dynamic IP address, phone number, etc) can reasonably be traced back to you given likely evolution of technology, all the data associated to that identifier becomes personal data.
Why should you care?
Holding personal data often translates into power over people, which in turn becomes economic might (at the extreme, think Facebook, Google, etc). This situation often creates uncomfortable issues of transborder transparency and accountability, but also hinders the appearance of other innovative uses for the data, for instance for research, art, business, education, advocacy, journalism, etc.
- You want to get a copy of your position data, as tracked by telecom providers, in order to use it in services of your choice.
- You are curious how Uber complies with data protection laws as it moves to Europe, or whether they really can tell when people are desperate for a ride based on battery data. You exercise your right to obtain a copy, which you then make open. This data then gets picked up by a researcher investigating battery-based fraud detection, or a journalist writing about a recent Uber lawsuit.
- You are curious whether Facebook tried to make you more happy or sad when it conducted its Emotion Manipulation Experiment.
- You want to understand the whole adtech ecosystem and the browsing data collected through cookies on your local newspaper’s website.
- You want to understand how effective keystroke biometrics really are in identifying students in an online course.
- You want to understand how marketers have targeted you on Facebook through Custom Audiences, Lookalike Audiences or Pixels.
- You, as an American, want to get a copy of the psychological profile a UK-based subcontractor to Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Donald Trump claims to have built during the recent elections.
- You want to see what your IoT or smart device logs back at “home base”.
Leveraging the same mechanisms as FOI portals, we are focused on making such requests easier to initiate, to follow through, to share and then to clone. Processing the requests in the open helps increase the pressure on companies to comply. In practice, we have taken the Froide software developed by Open Knowledge Germany, themed it to our needs and made some basic modifications in the workflow. Our platform is growing its user base slowly, but we benefit from many network effects: for any given company, you only need one person to go through the process of getting their hands on their data, and afterwards everyone benefits!
Getting to the data is only the first step. The bar is still pretty high then to make it really useful. In May 2018, new regulations will come into place in Europe to help individuals leverage their personal data even more: individuals will enjoy a new right to data portability, i.e. the right to transfer data from one service to another.
In anticipation a whole movement has arisen focused on human-centric personal data management, called MyData. OpenKnowledge Finland recently organised a conference with tons of people building new services giving you more control over all that data! I am looking forward to a tool helping individuals turn their personal data into Open Data (by scraping direct identifiers, for instance). Many companies will also benefit from the Frictionless Data project, since there will be a requirement to transfer that data “in a structured, commonly used, machine-readable and interoperable format”.
Image credit: Salla Thure (Public Domain)
In anticipation of this exciting ecosystem, we want to build experiences expanding access to this data with PersonalData.IO and to encourage companies to broaden their view of what constitutes personal data. The more data is considered personal data, the more you will be in control. Feel free to join us!
You can sign up to our mailing list or directly to the portal itself and initiate new requests. You can also follow us on Twitter or contact us directly. We welcome individual feedback and ideas and are always looking for new partners, developers and contributors!