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The rise of the personal cloud

Are decentralised, private cloud services the future of information storing and sharing?

“The average person doesn’t realise that at least 80 per cent of what they do [online] every day is actually tracked,” says Katryna Dow, CEO at Meeco, a developer of a life management platform.

Dow is probably right. Governments, telecommunications providers, social media sites, and data brokers are violating our privacy and information is being used without our permission.

Some are even trying to manipulate our emotions. Facebook earlier this week defended conducting a psychology experiment on its users where it used an algorithm to manipulate content in the news feed of almost 700,000 users.

Dow says many people don’t understand what they might be able to do about how companies use their information and they don’t realise there may be an economic impact from these data collection activities.

“Or in fact that the information that is collected in one way may disadvantage them in another,” Dow says.

As an example, Dow cited an article in the Sydney Morning Herald last year that revealed supermarket chain Woolworths had passed grocery basket information across to its insurance subsidiary to determine the insurance risk of its shoppers.

“So what may appear as a discount from one service provider ends up being an increased cost from another ... and that’s not what’s made obvious.”

“As soon as you get access to free services, quite often it’s because the data or the terms and conditions that you have agreed to can be equal or far outweigh any benefits that seem to on offer,” Dow says.

Meeco is part of a new global movement of organisations that are promising to give users back control of their data and restore privacy on the Internet.

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Meeco's Katryna Dow

The company is also a founding partner of Respect Network, a global network for trusted private data sharing, which will launch in Australia next week. Respect promises users – who pay US$25 – a lifetime membership to the personal cloud service without them being tracked, mainly for targeted advertising.

The fundamental idea behind a personal cloud is that data saved at a service provider is controlled and owned by the individual user. It’s encrypted so no one can read it, and it’s not available for social media providers and other organisations to mine and sell to other companies, Dow says.

“You have total sovereignty that information and that’s what will lead to new forms of value.

“Imagine if you have got relevant information to an insurance company – and you are the most accurate source of that – all of a sudden it puts you in a powerful position if you want to exchange that information as opposed to how it is collected right now.”

Telsyte analyst Rodney Gedda says there’s a resurgence in the Internet privacy debate and although peer-to-peer services are nothing new, any product that gives consumers options is one to watch.

“Even with more traditional cloud services, there are ways you can encrypt data before you send it into the cloud. There are ways to use [the services] temporarily but not have any long term data stored in the cloud,” he says.

He expects in the future, consumers will use a combination of on-premise, personal-owned or peer-to-peer (P2P), and centralised cloud models.

He cited Syncthing and Infinit as two new useful P2P apps that promise secure, private file sharing.

Syncthing says it replaces Dropbox and BitTorrent Sync with a decentralised service that lets users decide where their information is stored, if it’s shared with another party, and how it is transmitted over the Internet.

The technology behind Respect

Respect Network uses the XDI Semantic Data Interchange (XDI) protocol, which has been developed by the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

"It's basically about machines being about to talk intelligently to each other and exchange data with precise controls over that information," says Respect Networks' CEO Drummond Reed. "For instance, if I share a business card with you cloud to cloud, you'll get exactly the business card and permissions to use it."

Consumers and businesses connect by clicking the ‘Respect Connect’ button. This could be a website that wants to offer a Respect connection or a connection to a cloud service, anything from a single sign on service to entering and sharing medical or financial records or applying for a mortgage online, says Reed.

“It doesn’t matter how simple or complicated it is, it always appears as ‘Click the Respect Connect’ button. That’s how you will actually share data privately and securely; all Respect Connections are going to be bank level privacy and security,” he says.

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Respect Networks' Drummond Reed

Reed says part of the reason we have privacy problems with the Internet today is that it’s based on an open, public architecture where much of the data being moved around is not encrypted.

This has made it much easier for governments, for instance, to do surveillance. The availability of personal clouds will make it much harder for an individual’s information to be viewed and tracked, he says.

“We see announcements from Google, Facebook and Microsoft [where] they are encrypting more and more [and] that makes it somewhat safer. But if you are still storing data on centralised servers, it is much more easily surveilled than if is moving in peer-to-peer connections between private clouds all over the network.”

Improving the user experience

Australian firm Flamingo Ventures is one of Respect Network’s integration partners, meaning it’s the ‘bridge’ between personal clouds and the enterprise, says founder Dr Catriona Wallace.

Flamingo has developed what it calls a ‘co-creation’ platform, which interfaces with a company’s CRM or customer databases and uses these systems to invite customers to detail exactly how they want to interact with the organisation.

Consumers ‘cast out’ their profiles to organisations detailing exactly the experience and relationship they want when they are dealing with individual service providers.

“Respect Network are champions of the personal cloud; these are people who fundamentally believe that the only way that business is sustainable is to bring equity back into the equation and have customers with more power than they’ve had,” Dr Wallace says.

According to Dr Wallace, this doesn’t mean taking power away from businesses but giving customers more control through a model of ‘shared value creation'.

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Flamingo Ventures' Dr Catriona Wallace

Flamingo will also soon launch its own personal cloud service and has partnered with companies such as WelcomerID to identify and verify users. Consumers will use the service to create their preferred ‘experience’, which will be shared among various service providers.

According to Dr Wallace, the concept of customers, owning, managing and controlling their own data is quite challenging for government and business.

“We are taking enterprises on the journey towards personal cloud,” Dr Wallace says.

“Because it is so disruptive to how businesses are currently working, it will take a little bit of testing and trialling and some great use cases of organisations that are successfully doing this for it to really take off.”

But it’s a disruption that needs to happen, she says.

“It will affect the way IT departments think about data and channels to market, particularly as customers start interacting with service providers through their personal cloud rather than traditional means such as a contact centre.

“We can have most of our relationships through the cloud.”

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Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter:@ByronConnolly

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