The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Alex Yergin, vice president of business development at Datawallet, a New York-based company that operates a consumer-to-business marketplace for businesses to access data from internet users, while empowering these users to control their online identity. Yergin discussed how Datawallet gives users more options to control and gain benefits from their personal data.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Eline Chivot: What service does Datawallet provide?
Alex Yergin: Datawallet is a tool that enables you—an individual Internet user—to take control of the data you create, such as social, e-commerce, browsing data, and to extract the value that lies within your created data. This value can be a better online experience, better products, or permissioning your data for a reward from enterprises, such as advertisers, financial institutions, and more. These companies can then use that data for whatever purpose they have permission for—ad targeting, personalization of content, identity verification, etc.
Chivot: Why do you want consumers to own their data, and what drives the need for tools such as Datawallet?
Yergin: Society prospers when people have ownership of what is rightfully theirs. Private property enabled the birth of the modern world, and intellectual property was key to the major technological advances of the 20th century. In today’s age, we need to update our understanding of ownership to include data ownership—since that is what people produce these days. This right has been enumerated in recent privacy laws—the right to download your data—but there is no way to exercise this right in practice. Datawallet is what will enable you to do so with an easy to use interface. People can control their own data and permission it for the technology of the future when they see fit. It’s about creating an ethical way to exchange data.
Chivot: How does Datawallet make the life of its users easier, without reducing the security of personal data access and processing?
Yergin: Not only will users get rewarded for their data, but they will also be able to port their history from platform to platform. For instance, if they’ve built a music playlist history in one platform and they want to switch, they will be able to move their history to another platform so they can automatically rebuild playlists. Or imagine in the future being able to easily move medical records around. Datawallet will also enable people when they start a new financial account, for instance, to easily auto-populate fields and appear as a real person, lessening the wait time for them to get verified as a real person.
We prevent hacking because a users’ raw data never leaves their Datawallet. The data is merely accessed through a call. The data can be stored either securely on a user’s device or in secure cloud storage that requires an individual user’s private key to access. This would make hacking highly unlikely and very difficult to do since the hacker would essentially need to hack every Datawallet user—there is not a central point of failure.
Chivot: Datawallet is based on blockchain technology. How does it help users manage and control their data?
Yergin: When coordinating a distributed data marketplace among actors with distinct incentives, blockchain technology provides the tools necessary to ensure efficient market functioning. Specifically, it provides three core assurances.
First, that users have control of their data. They can create self-sovereign encrypted Datawallets, to which only they have access. This provides the ultimate assurance that only they can decide with what entities to share their data. It allows for safer storage of the personal data set by not having a single, potentially vulnerable database.
Second, the data that users provide is verified and immutable. For this part of the ecosystem, a hash—a hash function provides a one-way map from data to a concise code—of the entire data set is created and stored the moment data is added to the user’s Datawallet. If someone now wants to challenge the veracity of the data set, we can verify that running the data-query against it returns the same endpoints (to ensure anonymity the equality is calculated on the hashes) or hash this entire data store and compare it to the hash generated from at the initial creation.
Third, blockchain makes sure that access to data is transparent and can only occur with the data owners’ express consent. Our smart encrypted data exchange contracts provide immutable rules for the exchange which ensure data providers know exactly what they will receive for permissioning specifically defined data points. Smart contracts are self-executing contracts immutably written into the distributed ledger of the underlying blockchain with the terms of the agreement being directly written into lines of code. The code and the agreements contained therein exist across a distributed, decentralized blockchain network. Smart contracts permit trusted transactions and agreements to be carried out among disparate, anonymous parties without the need for a central authority, legal system, or external enforcement mechanism. They render transactions traceable, transparent, and irreversible, and have made trustless exchanges of information, data and more possible with a defined set of rules.
Chivot: To what extent is Datawallet’s data exchange protocol challenging the business model of other major platforms?
Yergin: We fundamentally change the point of control of the vast amounts of consumer data we each create every day. The point of control is now back with the creator and owner of the data, the individual consumer. We challenge the big platforms because they can no longer act as the control point of walled gardens of data that their users are creating. Now, businesses can access that data and unify it across the platforms based on the permissions granted by individual users. While that helps individual users control the data they create on the big tech platforms, at the same time it can help those very same platforms because they themselves can gain access to data from across other walled gardens and offer their users both more personalized services and better-targeted advertising.
We do enable interoperability between the Datawallet platform and other sites through our API, after we normalize all the data from disparate sources into a single, standard data taxonomy. This means that any business will be able to use our data—either via the easy-to-use dashboard platform that helps visualize the data, or direct API access that feeds into companies’ existing data analysis platforms. This allows the permissioned data access to be integrated seamlessly into the existing internet protocols, while putting the consumer back in control of the data they create.