The recent scandal of Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data to allegedly manipulate elections has given fresh impetus to projects designed to give people control of their private information. One group even plans to launch an initiative to enshrine data protection into the Swiss constitution.
Companies harvesting personal data for commercial use is hardly new. It is the business model of Facebook and other social media while hospitals sell anonymised patient information to pharmaceutical companies. Concerns about invasion of privacy have spawned a range of platforms that allow people to safeguard their data and sell it on their own terms.
Swiss newcomer VALID, later renamed VETRIexternal link, has recently raised more than $10 million (CHF9.5 million) from the public to set up a non-profit platform exactly for this purpose. It is the brainchild of Daniel Gasteiger, founder of the digital identity firm Procivis.
“This is exactly what we are all about, making sure this cannot happen in future,” Gasteiger told swissinfo.ch in reference to the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal.
Users of the blockchain platform will be able to store their data on digital wallets and then connect with companies via an app that creates a marketplace for selling data. But instead of a third party making money from these transactions, the user will get paid directly.
“We are not a Facebook ‘killer’,” insists Gasteiger. “We are about selling private data in a way that benefits the owner. Hopefully we can persuade Facebook and others to change their ways by charging monthly subscriptions or at least being more transparent about the what they do with users’ data.”
VETRI is not the only Swiss platform offering such a service. Medical data platforms such as Healthbank also offer ways to allow people to manage their personal health records, and sell them to researchers if they wish.
The trend is being driven by consumer regulation, much of it coming out of the European Union. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Revised Payment Service Directive (PSD2) will give consumers more control over their data by loosening the grip that companies currently have on this information.
Switzerland is not covered by EU laws nor is it immune with so many companies operating in and trading with the EU, its largest trade partner. However, the Swiss Business federation (economiesuisse) does not want Switzerland to go down the same regulatory route as the EU with regards to data protection.
In a recent position paper, the lobby group argued for self-regulation and was against piecemeal rules aimed at individual industries. “Data is the innovation driver for innovative business models. Enabling innovation must be proportionate to protecting the privacy of individuals,” the paper states.
Gasteiger also wants a balance between private data security and commercial interests, but supports the new EU rules. He argues that they will allow the market to open up to new innovation and business models, such as VETRI, that better respect consumer rights.
Data as human right
But another group wants to go further by raising the sanctity of personal data to the level of life and limb in the Swiss constitution. The newly-formed Association for the Recognition of Digital Life is intent on triggering a vote to update article 10 of the constitutionexternal link, which sanctifies personal liberty, physical and mental integrity, to also recognise digital human rights.
This would in effect criminalise the misuse of personal data, says board member Alexis Roussel, who is also founder of Bity cryptocurrency brokerage and a member of the Pirate Party. “We need a clear legal basis to prevent data being manipulated behind people’s backs,” he told swissinfo.ch.
The economic market is not a fit vehicle to advance the protection of personal data, Roussel argues. He likens some of the new platforms, which encourage people to sell their own data, to the trade in body parts.
Furthermore, he fears that it is only a matter of time before Swiss elections get some Cambridge Analytica-style treatment. “This would not just attack individuals but the whole system. We need systems in place to resist such an attack,” he said. But the process towards achieving such a lofty goal will take time, Roussel admits. A case of years rather than months to achieve such a landmark.