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Summary:

The app tells users what services like Facebook can figure out about their personality and intentions. In the future, it wants to encourage people to feed that data to advertisers for cash rewards. This is an attempt to improve rather than reinvent the current internet model.

CitizenMe

Most privacy fans recognize that the current internet business model is a blocker — when people are only semi-consciously paying for services like Google and Facebook with their personal data, which is then used to target advertising, there’s little hope of keeping that data under control.

Some new initiatives such as the Safe Network see the solution as, effectively, burning it all down and starting again with a new, parallel network based on different economics. However, some are taking an alternative approach that tries to make the best of the ad-centric internet business model, and a good example here is CitizenMe.

Be your own data broker

CitizenMe’s app and model have two main aspects. The first is user control: the app can be plugged into Facebook, LinkedIn and so on, which allows it to provide an overview of the user’s rights and settings across all these different services. It uses a traffic-lighting scheme, highlighting particularly disadvantageous terms in red for example.

Users can vote on whether they find certain terms reasonable or unreasonable, and CitizenMe will compile a top 10 of the worst terms and conditions. There’s also an “action” button on each term that will take the user straight through to the right settings page on the relevant service, so they can change it. Users can also set up notifications to alert them when the service provider changes their T&Cs (this reminds me a bit of Avira’s My Face Privacy tool for desktops).

But the second aspect is where things get really interesting. CitizenMe has been working with the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge on a way to tap into these various social networks and web services and, in essence, see what they see. At the start, that includes scoring for things like “conscientiousness” and “neuroticism”; later, it will include perceived intelligence, age, religion and so on. After all, Facebook famously has the ability to measure its users’ attributes and state of mind, so CitizenMe is trying to take the same source material and do the same thing – only it then feeds the results back to the user, rather than ad networks.

That fed-back information is stored and encrypted on the user’s device – CitizenMe doesn’t store it in some data silo that the NSA or other hackers can access.

In the future, CitizenMe hopes, users could then opt to share that information with others, perhaps including advertisers. As founder StJohn Deakins explained it to me:

“The first step is to provide visibility and control of data, so you can go into your settings and have some control. If you want to, you can share that data… you can exchange data for a reward. It could be for altruistic reasons, for example 23andMe [genetics] data for research. You may want to expose your data out to the ad ecosystem and brands. We then provide a marketplace and exchange where we exchange on your behalf.”

Non-commercial data-sharing would be free. When users share data with advertisers, though, they would get paid for that data and CitizenMe would take a cut. If this sounds a bit like the goal of the Respect Network, whose launch I covered last week, then you’ll be unsurprised to learn CitizenMe is a partner in that initiative.

Making peace with advertisers

I asked Deakins what the point of this was – after all, surely those ad networks are already plugging into this stuff via Facebook and its ilk? His answer was that CitizenMe’s system is simply more effective. It doesn’t need to rely on old demographic targeting techniques involving census information and so on; instead, it can offer verifiable intent.

“Instead of having that big data approach, you allow individuals to firstly provide intent information, which we can validate through all your different datapoints,” Deakins said. So, if for example someone claims to be in the market for a Maserati but they currently only have a Ford Focus and a low salary, the system would be wise to them and say they’re probably in the market for something more modest. “By starting off with small data we can allow people to curate it into what we call ‘Me data’,” Deakins added.

Proponents of decentralization as a response to what we now know about mass surveillance might not be too keen on all this. The attitude there is more often one of denying advertisers any access to personal data. And Deakins recognizes that his attitude is “not particularly popular with some groups”:

“There are some attitudes which are quite, ‘We need to put the genie back in the bottle, we need to provide almost technical solutions to give people control back of their privacy,’ but I’m really not sure that’s possible. Being pragmatic about it… pretty much the entire ecosystem is paid for by advertising and that’s a good thing because it means we have ubiquity of access… We’re just coming to terms with that as a society. I think giving visibility and some element of control, which will reduce anxiety and induce trust, helps the entire ecosystem. Telling people everything’s horrible just increases distrust.”

The ad network stuff is in the future, though. Right now, CitizenMe’s realtime sentiment analysis is only reflected to users on their devices, only for their private consumption.

Even then it could be useful. CitizenMe has been talking to Project Ginsberg about a tie-in for users with mental health problems – for example, a bipolar user might be able to link up with Ginsberg’s mental health engine and set up an alert, so when the engine recognizes a manic episode it can warn the user that he’s heading for a down period in a few days’ time.

Right now CitizenMe is available on iOS, but it will be ported to other platforms soon, Deakins said. As a tool for informing users about what others can deduce about them, I think it’s a great idea. I’m not entirely sold on CitizenMe’s plans for integrating into the ad ecosystem, though.

Maybe it’s because I think the advertisers will be happy to just continue taking their data from the sources they’re already using; maybe it’s because part of me hopes the burn-it-down-and-start-again approach might still succeed. But if that revolution isn’t on the horizon, then I guess at least giving people more insight and control is better than nothing.

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