The National Treasure: Our Data

What if there was privacy, but there was still identification -of everything?

SafeGraph CEO Auren Hoffman’s new treatise entitled, “It’s Our Moral Obligation to Make Data More Accessible,” sees a world of opportunity ahead if access to data troves can be unleashed to the innovators of today. Read it here.

As Hoffman begins to make his case, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur twists the knife of “morality” into the reader’s gut:

“We have a MORAL OBLIGATION to get this data into the hands of millions of innovators. Not doing so is a true failing of society. This data can save hundreds of millions of lives and help all of humanity … which means not using it hastens the death of hundreds of millions of people.”

No doubt privacy advocates and related special interests will initially convulse at the thought of opening data stores to hoodied entrepreneurs, well-meaning or not. But after being at the front lines of the digital data revolution, Hoffman has put his reputation on the line and seems ready to fight.

It should also be noted that the treatise fits well within his current company’s mission “towards making our vision (to democratize access to data) a reality.”

Regardless, Hoffman is asking for what many talented developers, builders and product designers in the technology and data worlds already know. It’s just that… in today’s environment of regulation with well-meaning and sometimes well-financed privacy advocates along with the perception by consumers that their data is being used without their consent, the discussion on data and privacy invariably ends up being regressive. Hoffman wants us to start thinking about “doing good”  -and he still sees privacy as attainable by pointing out emergent technologies and systems such as differential privacy.

Hoffman postulates, “Imagine if we could combine anonymized IRS data and the Medicaid and Medicare data? By empirically tieing people’s financial wellbeing to their physical wellbeing, we could see all sorts of new programs. We could fund programs to direct public health initiatives right to the people who need it most.”

If true, saving lives and saving money is a compelling argument. He notes the ability for data owners – and governments – to make money, too. Call it the “Doing Good” pyramid.

How to do it

Now that he’s laid it out, what should be next for Hoffman and other like-minded believers? Below are five ideas.

At first, it will take networking by these believers – the human kind. These believers won’t be technologists first, they will be Americans first. It will take persistence, a soft touch and elusive authenticity. No doubt the halls of Congress will be a good place to start along with applicable regulators. It may involve state and local authorities as well. Initially, building awareness on the topic and then finding advocates who can drive “doing good” with data, as Hoffman describes, will be at the forefront.

Next, whether there is a particular trade association or, more appropriately, some organization without a profit and loss statement and along the lines of a Masonic Temple of data owners, technologists and others heroically inclined to steward the long term “doing good” vision seems essential. (Think “National Treasure” where Auren Hoffman is Nic Cage?) The Masonic Temple will need to be in place not for years, but for generations as the holy pyramid of “doing good” is pursued.

Third, ride the blockchain “train.”

Hoffman doesn’t say it explicitly but may have hinted at it inadvertently:

“It sounds scary to combine this data. It sounds like something that could hurt privacy. But what if these datasets could be joined without having access to the underlying data? Where each dataset is still stored decentrally but questions can be asked across dozens of datasets. That’s actually possible. We just need the courage to build it (and to fight the special interests that want to protect the status quo).”

“decentrally”… It is still early days for understanding the true potential of blockchain technology as much of today’s discussion is around “number go up” and re-inventing the financial system. But, at its core is decentralization and blockchain may provide a new way for delivering privacy as well as efficient access to stores of data.

For example, Donovan Choy recently offered several thoughts on Bankless which align with the application of (hopefully) transformative privacy features in blockchain tech:

“Coming to the rescue are decentralized identity systems on blockchains (AKA Proof of Personhood Passports) such as Proof of Humanity (PoH) and BrightID.

The basic idea behind this technology is that identity creation and verification can be performed on a decentralized blockchain network by having other users vouch for you. Users within such a reputational system (or a web of trust) have a financial stake at hand to make correct verifications, making it hard for malicious actors to be verified by other trusted nodes.”

Yet another reason to ride the blockchain “train” is that crypto, and therefore blockchain, is red hot in Washington D.C. and, of course, with voters who own crypto. The blockchain’s impact may be seen for the first time in this fall’s U.S. elections as candidates ride pro-crypto platforms.

Fourth idea: Get a project or two in the works ASAP across huge datasets that offer impactful and incrememtal proof points on how data can “do good.” The projects should include new access to datasets by skilled entrepreneurs. Hoffman’s example around IRS data seems ideal for the early stages, but maybe that’s asking too much.

Along those lines of looking for a “doing good” project that could receive quick(er) approval, begin with the Covid-19 pandemic. What has transpired during the pandemic has been horrendous in terms of the death, injury and economic fallout. At the same time, the pandemic has showed promise about data’s power. The pharmaceutical industry turned around vaccines in record time. What can we do with today’s data to steel a pandemic prevention strategy for the future?

And this leads to the final idea and it’s the one which it appears Hoffman avoided. It’s “doing bad” with data. And that opportunity – “doing bad” – seems just as relevant as “doing good.” The United States will lead with “doing good.” It speaks to the core of our democracy. But of course, not everyone thinks that way.

It’s easy to say that an authoritarian government such as China’s, which has access to anything it pleases and without any relative blowback from the populace, could be the baddie. But, I think it’s a lot more nuanced than that and I’d imagine China knows the “doing good” and “doing bad” potentialities and is wary of the downsides.

The trouble will come from rogue nations if not rogue actors who may in the future have access to huge databases that will reveal a weapon of the future. Biological seems the most likely, but perhaps there are other scenarios. The United States needs to be ready for those who will be “doing bad.” And the only way to get in front of that is to start “doing good” as soon as possible.

Good luck to Mr. Hoffman and the believers. Good luck to us all.