The Limits of Current Personal Data Hosts

Introduction

Data should not be held hostage by a single operating system or platform. As the world heads into a more data ownership oriented approach to user platform interaction, new platforms rise to the occasion and provide both the required technologies to move forward and the access controls necessary to do so. Holding on to one’s data is initially simple on paper, but requires a complex web of relationships to maintain. The interaction between these multiple types of data structures and data types largely relies on agreed upon standards that are upheld during the development process to enable a degree of interoperability and flexibility between users, platforms and data stores. Beyond that, they have to live up to certain standards that inspire continued and easy use. At the end of the day, the user has to control, manage and maintain their data, and no one should do that with an unwelcoming and obtuse platform!

This article will dive into what a personal data store is and the multiple available personal data store providers. Before doing that, it’s necessary to explain what a Personal Data Store is and what it can offer in the future. Following, a description of their approach and an overview of what they do well and where their shortcomings lie. The main points of criticism will be focused on usability, adoptability, performance and added value to the user in the market’s rising demand for increased data privacy measures. Beyond that, a few concluding remarks on the current state of Personal Data Stores and what we should aim for in future iterations.

What is a Personal Data Store?

Put simply, a Personal Data Store is a single location which all your data can be stored in. To a large degree, it could be seen as a personal hard drive. When it comes to our own data, it would be nice to have the (limited) assurance that comes with a hard drive, that only people who have access to your data can view it, and that you are in control of that data entirely by physical control of the drive. It makes sense then that this concept would gain the same preference on the web today. To some degree, this is achieved currently with cloud storage technologies that have some small degree of interoperability. Google Drive and iCloud offer excellent integration with their own products but very little towards other products. If your information is on Google Drive it cannot be easily transported to iCloud without some sort of in-between. 

Although many companies currently provide the service of hosting our data, they do not offer a service that makes it possible to not need other services. There is no interoperability between the data owned on an Apple device and an Android device owned by the same user. A picture posted once on a social media account can’t simply be linked to, it has to be posted on every one and conversely when the desire for change arises, it has to be deleted on every platform individually. This approach currently comes with numerous caveats:

  1. Data becomes harder to delete - therefore less private
  2. Many iterations of the same data scattered all around
  3. A loss of data purity - no centralized authority on the current status of specific data

WIth this in mind, we can begin to see that future and current Personal Data Stores will undoubtedly need to come equipped with the capability to manage our information and its usage rather than just host it. In other words, companies will have to offer a service that can be applied in a wide variety of unencountered contexts under the control of a user. This need comes with its own sets of challenges. Much like every new technology to be adopted, this novel methodology towards personal data management comes with the common pitfalls that all technologies must face before adoption. Is it easy to use, does it provide value and is the service of high quality? 

A Comparison of Several Personal Data Stores

  1. Google Drive

Users are delighted with a free fifteen gigabyte storage when using Google drive. This comes into handy if they were to participate in the Google ecosystem, which with the help of OAuth, grew to giant extents. Many web applications today offer some degree of integration with Google Drive, whether it’s for accessing personal information or the free-flowing share of files in between different platforms. Inside its own network of platforms, Google allows an easy transfer of data like photos, videos or programming notebooks, it all funnels into a central repository tied to a user where they can control the flow of data. This comes with the down-side that Google only supports Google applications and despite the prolificity of their platforms, that’s not enough to fulfill all one’s online data management needs. 

  1. iCloud

Preloaded into any Apple device, iCloud offers a stable service which caters to almost every user’s needs. Apple designed this storage service in a way that blends into the workflow of its user, offering services the user didn’t know they needed. Additionally, iCloud blends seamlessly with every other device the user own, as long as it’s an Apple device. iCloud’s strengths are also its weaknesses. For all of the functionality and integration iCloud offers Apple devices, it takes it away from every other system. Apple’s iCloud offers no integration or added functionality other than file storage when it comes to any software or hardware that was not made by Apple. This approach severely limits a user’s freedom online by narrowing down their usage to one brand or system.

  1. Dropbox

Maybe the first cloud storage service many subscribed to, Dropbox has proven itself to be a juggernaut in the industry. Despite that, Dropbox’s main service hasn’t really changed all too much since its inception. The initial idea remains the same, the secure storage of a user’s personal data. Interestingly, with the development of more interoperable approaches, Dropbox partnered with similar status companies to offer users a more fluid experience; Google, Zoom, Slack, Microsoft, Canvas, etc. The idea was to allow users to use the files on Dropbox easy to reach and share in the software of other companies. However, Dropbox’s strength lays in its ability to work well on multiple operating systems and devices. This added freedom and flexibility is appreciated, however, it comes at the cost of platform specific functionalities that become more difficult and expensive to program.

  1. digi.me

Less concerned with data storage and more on management, digi.me gives users the ability to control the flow of their personal data, like medical information. The philosophy behind digi.me is giving total control to the user over their own data by serving as a bridge between the data source and the data receiver (Instagram, Pinterest, etc.). It functions by leveraging a proprietary encryption algorithm developed by digi.me to decrypt the data from a source of the user’s choosing, including; Google Drive, OneDrive and more importantly, locally stored data. Ultimately, the idea is to give the user a platform to know, control and update their data. Shifting the control of data from consent forms to the active participation and full awareness of the user, greatly reducing the responsibility of companies, improving data quality and simplifies following data privacy regulations.

  1. Cozy Cloud

Cozy Cloud provides users with a cross-platform ecosystem which aims to give users control over multiple facets of their data. The idea is to allow users to have the same degree of interoperability between all platforms as tech giants have today (Google, Apple). The platform that hosts the user’s data does not dictate which services they can use, as long as they are part of the ecosystem. Additionally, Cozy Cloud allows users to host their own data and still participate in the Cozy Cloud. Ultimately, this allows for much more stringent security measures for users without the need to sacrifice flexibility. Although the requirement of belonging to yet another storage platform is a limiting factor, Cozy provides multiple applications within its own ecosystem to warrant its use, like their bank data management software, or password management software which work within their hosting ecosystem, MyData.

  1. MyData

Cozy Cloud is not the only provider within its ecosystem. Rather, it is part of a growing network of storage providers who follow the MyData standard and promise the same modularity and freedom as Cozy Cloud. MyData is a non-profit global community of scholars, activists, companies and other volunteers who pledge to provide their users a service that lives up to their tenants on data management. MyData’s aim is to empower the user and owner of the data and give them the freedom to use it without the loss of privacy. MyData views the user as the center of every transaction of data, not the other way around. The user provides the company with the data to the degree that they find acceptable. Additionally, MyData aims to provide users with more freedom in switching between platforms by ensuring that the user’s data is interoperable and usable between platforms without any other complications.

Conclusion

The platforms discussed in this article each come with their downsides and benefits. Google comes with a robust and relatively wide-reaching interoperability, however, achieving it requires difficult integration processes and development, so the barrier to entry is high. iCloud offers an integratable storage system that blends into the operating system of their devices excellently, but it fails to provide that service for any other operating system. While dropbox does have a robust application for most popular systems, it does very little else in the realm of integrating with user applications in the way iCloud and Google do. 

On the other hand, applications like digi.me which offer heightened security, privacy and control over user’s data currently find their best use cases in the medical field, additionally, digi.me depends on pre-existent storage services, adding more layers of complexity, rather than a strong unified ecosystem. Cozy Cloud functions primarily as a storage system and although it does offer an interesting set of applications within that ecosystem, it is not entirely clear yet whether the principle of interoperability transfers outside of their own network, or ever will.

Finally, although not a data storage platform, MyData provides a foundational mindset to start from by delineating clear goals and ambitions. More data privacy, freedom, control and flexibility for the user. While not entirely adopted by everyone, MyData anticipates the rising demand for more measures that live up to the ambitions they aim to achieve. Ultimately, however, in its current state the organization cannot serve the needs of many and is currently still growing.

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