Interview with Paul-Olivier Dehaye

POD-blue_background-237x300

Paul-Olivier Dehaye (POD) is the founder of PersonalData.IO & Hestia Labs - both nonprofits are focused on enforcing data protection rights and making data usable collectively. The Belgian mathematician helped bring the Cambridge Analytica data abuse scandal to light.

At DINAcon 2021 we will hear the keynote speech by Paul-Olivier Dehaye after noon. Our conference moderator Francesca Giardina (FG) talked to Paul-Olivier Dehaye (POD) about data collectives and the future of the Internet before the conference and received the following exciting answers:

(FG) You are a mathematician turned personal data activist. What moment made you realize, that your math brain could and should be used to teach us about how companies (mis-)use our data?

(POD) I like to study things systematically, which is not surprising given my original career choice. The topic of personal data is particularly suited for this type of thinking, given the granularity of data, types of data and the multiplicity of actors involved. I progressively got "nerd-sniped" into it, and as a consequence started being a bit ahead of the curve in my reflexions, which made me understand events around me or in my personal life differently. At that point there was a positive feedback loop between my involvement in the topic and my capacity for this hobby to become a more serious activity.

 

(FG) I cannot use the data that is being collected about me and even if I could, I'd have no use for it. So why should I not just let the companies that create the services and devices the data is gathered through have "my" data?

(POD) The companies that exploit this data have a particular perspective on it, tied to its capacity to produce revenue. However we see that access to data is relevant from a broader perspective, for instance in informing the deployment of social programs. I see these broader uses of personal data akin to a voting right for next steps into a digital society. Unfortunately, at the moment, business dynamics tend to encourage concentration of power over this data in very few hands. All this combines to a concentration of enormous power in deciding how data can be used for social impact, which I consider to be unhealthy. It's a bit like tying our exercise of voting rights to the interests of the transportation company that brought us to the polling station, while there are very few transportation companies around.

 

(FG) With Hestia Labs you are beginning an experiment, you would like citizens to convene into data collectives. Could you explain in lay terms what a data collective is and how it works?

(POD) A data collective is "just" a bunch of people getting together to decide how their personal data should be used, and extract value that would not be available to them otherwise. This raises many questions: how is this done technically? who funds this? what are good partners to have? how are decisions made? who has the expertise to extract value from this data? for what purpose? under what constraints? what is the legal form for this collective? To be honest, we don't know and it will depend on the domain of focus of the collective. But this is part of the process we are experimenting with and in fact completely normal: we have had hundreds of years to figure out new institutions and legal vehicles to streamline monetary investments, we will need a while to sort out how to do it around personal data.

 

(FG) Your ideas go beyond just protecting individual's privacy. What do you hope the future digital citizen will be able to do with "their" data?

(POD) The analogy I have is of a chair. In my dining room at home I have a chair, I sit on it to eat everyday. That was the plan of the person who designed the chair. If the lightbulb is broken, I stand on the chair and fix my lightbulb. I don't have to ask permission. It's the same thing is if with my neighbours I want to have a party: we just take the chairs from our homes and use them differently. I expect the same fluidity from my data and the range of uses available to me for the reuse of that data. If a service tracks my geolocation, I can understand I might get benefit from that service knowing that geolocation. It would be important to me to exclude that service from knowing my geolocation at all times. But also others might be interested in that geolocation as well. This geolocation data is really attached to me, not the particular service who collected it. So why can't I decide all this for myself?

 

(FG) What role does the Open Source community/technology play in this?

(POD) Open source software and more generally the use of open standards are very important of course in promoting the long term viability of such projects. One challenge is that the dominant narrative that has emerged from technical communities is that one should hide through technical means. A lot of tools are geared towards that. These tools are important, but generally they set up an unhealthy dynamic if they are the sole narrative. They only leave people with two potential outcomes: either the person falls off the technical wagon (which will disproportionately affect the young, old, uneducated, minorities, etc) or that person essentially engages into a war of attrition that will use all of their time and energy. Part of the problem is that it frames the core of the response as purely individual, and this is where we think a more complex perspective on the matter would be fruitful.