Today it’s easy to store and share my pictures, my favorite URLs, my thoughts and lots of other things online. There are a range of data repositories that allow me to do this kind of thing in different ways.
What still needs work is how I give trusted services access to much more private data — things like my current location, my spending behavior, access to my friends and family, etc.
To date, most services follow the premise that the looser the controls, the more fluidly data will travel. And that’s all that mattered when it was still hard to get data flowing.
Data flow is no longer an issue. Perhaps data flow has actually become too easy now. And therein lies the problem.
Clearly, blogging, RSS and feed readers drove a lot of the early thinking about syndication. Blogging enabled people to post content in a publicly accessible data repository somewhere for anyone to pull out without any privacy or permissioning controls. The further your content then syndicated, the better.
Wikis and community sites like Slashdot created a slightly more complex read/write dynamic against the central content repository that lots of people could access together. The permissioning model was essentially hierarchical where controls were kept in the hands of a smaller community.
Then Flickr broke ground with a new approach. They applied a user-centric friends and family relationship model to permissioning access to personal photos. Flickr opened up what was once considered private data and defaulted it to a public read-only permission status. But each individual still has a great deal of control over the data he or she contributes.
Similarly, del.icio.us made it possible to store and publicly address what had previously been private data. The nice twist here was the easy-to-understand URLs that allowed machines to consume, interpret and redistribute data stored in del.icio.us.
Where services like Facebook and Wesabe are now breaking ground again is in identifying a security model around highly sensitive data. Contact lists are very personal, but there aren’t many data sets more personal than my purchases and spending patterns.
Neat things can happen when I give machines access to my data, both the things I explicitly ‘own’ and my implicit behaviors. I want machines to act on my behalf and make my data more useful to me in a range of different contexts.
For example, I like the fact that Facebook slurps up my Twitter activity and shares it with my friends in the Facebook network. I don’t want to change my ‘status’ on every service that shows status messages. Similarly, I like that Last.fm captures my listening behavior from iTunes and then uses that data to give back personal recommendations on a badge posted to my blog.
Allowing machines to automatically act on personal data on my bahalf is the right direction for things to go. But important questions need to be resolved.
For example, what happens to my data in all the places I’ve allowed it to appear when I change it? How do permissions pass from one service to another? How do I guarantee that a permission type I grant in one service means the same thing in another service? How do changes propagate? How does consent get revoked?
And even trickier than all that will be the methods for enforcing protection of privacy and penalties for breaking those permissions.
Until trust is measurable with explicit consentual triggers, loosely coupled networks that act on the data I wish to protect are going to struggle to talk to each other. Standards need to enable common sharing tactics. Responsibility needs to be clearly defined. And policies need to be enforceable.
Empowering a person to invest in storing and sharing the more sensitive data he or she owns is going to require a lot more than traditional read/write controls. But given the pace of change right now I suspect the answers will happen as the people behind these services work things out together before the industry taskforces, legal entities and blogosphere sort it out for them.