June 13, 2024

Empowering self-determination: A new approach to digital identity and privacy

In a world increasingly driven by data, concerns about privacy and control over personal information are on the rise. A study in Flanders, Belgium, reveals that over 70% of citizens distrust companies with their personal data. This sentiment reflects a broader global worry, as people cope with the complexities of digital identity and data ownership.

In the recent IDSA TechTalk on personal data, Tom Bergmans from the Belgian IDSA hub facilitator imec discussed these issues with us and introduced the Solid Protocol, a solution aimed at restoring control to individuals.

The study’s findings highlight a growing distrust among individuals towards companies handling their personal data. This skepticism is rooted in the unclear practices of large platform companies, which often hold vast amounts of user data without providing adequate transparency or control to the individuals who generate it. Big tech companies offer a wide range of services – mail clients, browsers, social media platforms, user authentication, data platforms etc. – that collectively gather extensive data on users. While these services enhance user experience through personalization, they simultaneously concentrate control and ownership of personal data in the hands of a few corporations.

Challenges of the current system

The current digital landscape is characterized by a lack of transparency, said Bergmans: “We don’t have control. We don’t have ownership and we don’t have an interoperable way to tap into other data ecosystems.” Individuals’ data is scattered across multiple platforms, leading to outdated and incomplete information. Moreover, users have little insight into how their data is used and no real control over its dissemination. This fragmentation and monopolization of data prevent the development of interoperable ecosystems, limiting the potential for broader, more inclusive data utilization.

Introducing the Solid Protocol

The Solid protocol, conceived by Tim Berners-Lee, seeks to address these issues by fundamentally changing how data is managed on the web. “We want to turn that process around so that all the relevant data that I, as an individual, want to be stored and have available for re-use, falls under my control,” said Bergmans. Instead of scattering personal data across various platforms, Solid envisions a system where individuals store their data in personal data stores (PDS). This approach grants users complete control over their data, allowing them to decide which services can access their information. This shift aims to enhance transparency, control, and ownership, enabling a more user-centric data ecosystem.

Aligning solid with IDS-based data spaces

However, for the Solid protocol to achieve its full potential, it must integrate with existing data ecosystems. Bergmans emphasizes the need for interoperability between Solid and large-scale data spaces based on the IDS Reference Architecture Model. “From the data space perspective, if we truly aim to scale to very large ecosystems or a federation of interoperable ecosystems, we will definitely need to consider the angle of personal data.”By aligning the Solid protocol with the IDS reference architecture, it can facilitate the development of federated, interoperable data-sharing ecosystems that are based on data sovereignty. This integration is crucial for scaling data space applications and achieving widespread, effective data utilization.

A marriage made in heaven

Bergmans envisions a synergistic relationship between personal data stores and data spaces, describing it as a “marriage made in heaven.” This partnership can drive the development of large-scale, interoperable data ecosystems that respect individual privacy and control. By approaching the issue from both perspectives – enhancing personal data control and integrating with existing data spaces–Solid and IDSA can pave the way for a more transparent and user-centric digital future.

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