It might be pretty to think so, but nothing online is truly free.
When we Google our mood swings, look up our STDs, and feed our whereabouts into mobile apps, we're exchanging our data for services. Where that data ends up is an oblique, spidery distribution process, and almost all of it is beyond our control. Still, that same process could one day affect our health insurance, job opportunities, or even future loans.
But it's not just the consumer at stake. Corporate guardians of massive vaults of personal data are realizing that security breaches threaten to destroy brand reputations—and after the NSA revelations last year, customers are demanding more insight into the trade of their personal information.
That's why, in the years to come, it could be that data architects will be tasked with negotiating a freer, more sustainable, and more transparent marketplace from which to source their innovations. In the meantime, here are seven promising new tools designed to let you, the consumer, own your own data.
Ever heard of an "infomediary?" It's retro idea, but it's making a comeback. The term, originating in John Hagel's Net Worth, came to prominence in the late '90s, when some savvy people realized that the online personal data trade was becoming a lucrative business, despite the fact that the original owners of that personal information would never see a cent. Handshake, borrowing from the infomediaries of Internet past, is a tool that seeks to put that business in the hands of the content creators: You.
Handshake puts an optimistic spin on typical privacy paranoia. If you must participate in a world that demands a slice of your personal information in exchange for basic online services, Handshake's app and website gives you the opportunity to choose which information that will be, and puts the money earned from its sale back in your pocket. Of course, Handshake will only be able to cut out the data brokers surreptitiously harvesting your information and reaping its profits if it gets enough people to sign up for the service.
In thinking about who owns personal data, computer scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aren't only looking at the privacy problem—they see people's lack of insight and control as an issue of efficiency. Our smartphone apps collect a massive amount of tracking information on our whereabouts, for example, but don't necessarily need it to provide us a service. That's why the creators of openPDS have designed a tool that essentially functions like a club bouncer for mobile data.
Whenever an app or third-party tracker asks for personal data, the openPDS app lets the user see that request and craft a response. If an app wants raw GPS data, openPDS might filter through a question that asks if the user is in Boston. If you hit "yes," a follow-up might ask if you're at MIT. If you're okay with letting on that you're skipping class and lolling on the quad, openPDS researcher Yves-Alexandre de Montjoy explains, you can keep responding in the affirmative. If you're not, just say "No."
OpenPDS suggests a kind of data ownership that focuses on freedom of choice. "We’re developing this because we’re very convinced that with this kind of data, there’s amazing value for society at large and businesses, but we think that the current model is not sustainable," de Montjoy said. "Giving control to user is the way to unleash the potential of Big Data."
The quantified self movement promises a future of better, data-driven decision-making, if we track our steps, our eating habits, our DNA, and our moods. But most of that information usually ends up far beyond the reach of the individual when it's stored in the cloud and used in whichever ways the owners of that cloud's servers see fit.
French company Cozy Cloud offers an alternative: Get off other clouds, and get your own. Using open-source software, Cozy provides users private clouds where they can store their contacts, calendars, and other apps that sync with their devices. "We dreamt of an Internet where we would not have to compromise our privacy every time we wish to benefit from a service," Cozy's creators wrote when announcing the first version of their product. Fittingly, they named it the 1.0 "Snowden" release.
Like Cozy Cloud, Personal.com offers users a cloud-based vault in which to store all the bits and pieces of their digital lives. Personal, though, adds another dimension: The app allows users to forward along different chunks of their data to other people in their network.
Personal comes in handy if you, say, forget your girlfriend's jibberish Netflix password, or your kid in college forgets his own social security number. It's a way to share information securely, but also one day share that information with companies, perhaps, who would pay for the opportunity to use it.
It's not live yet, but if the Dark Mail Alliance lives up to the promises of its founders, it'll be the most secure email system around. And the founders should know: The Alliance came about as a collaboration between secure messaging service SilentMail's Mike Janke with Lavabit's Ladar Levison, both of whom decided to take down their encrypted email services rather than be put in a position that would sacrifice user data to highly secretive government court orders.
If having your health insurance company find out about your online browsing habits terrifies you, but jargon about different kinds of encryption leaves you dizzy, the Epic browser offers something simple, intuitive, and clean.
Because it's built on Chromium, the same kind of platform as Chrome, anyone can use Epic without feeling like they're wrapping their heads around convoluted, alien technology. The browser also comes with something of an online-privacy-for-dummies infographic, which is helpful to look through, even if you don't plan on downloading Epic for free. At the same time, Epic does a lot of things that other browsers don't—like completely eliminating your browser history, disabling third party cookies, blocking ads, and routing all your web searches by a proxy, so your IP address remains a mystery.
Garlik doesn't let you sell your data on the open market, but it does let you know when the personal information you store with various companies and agencies is breached.
Founded in 2005 by the creator of Egg, the United Kingdom's first Internet bank, Garlik relies on a platform that harvests data from all over the web and alerts you by email when your address, phone number, banking, and online shopping information gets stolen or leaked. Users can opt for Garlik's DataPatrol for a small monthly fee, or just take advantage of the company's free tools, like an email checker that scours the Internet to see if your address has been compromised, or a service that lets the experts determine whether that Nigerian prince who emailed you last week really does need your help.
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]