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Europe and its citizens must take back control over their data

Euro-View: Rob van Kranenberg on future digital security

Rob van Kranenberg

Data is the new gold and currency of the 21st century. As a system supported by the taxes of its citizens, it should secure – first and foremost – the value of those capabilities that will create new and aggregated services: the data of persons, machines and situations.

Indeed, information technology has invaded all aspects of our lives, except policymaking…where politicians and the ‘democratic process’ of voting every four years have become irrelevant for the control of data. This is a spectre haunting Europe: it is the full retreat of our political elite and the inadvertent sell-out of our digital infrastructure and future services and applications – paid for us, the European taxpayers. This situation no longer protects the interests of Europe’s citizens.

What to do?

I argue that Europe, with its half-billion population, needs a pragmatic cybernetic system based on the design of new network protocols – something that breaks US-designed “TCP/IP” (Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol) foundation of the internet and instead exploits the notion of an individual’s secure passport as the ultimate digital device which would operate only in the EU zone and “talk” only to EU platforms.

Why do we need this? Currently security has become a “container” concept, meaning it has become so open-ended that anything can be thrown into the concept.

Moreover, the cyber security “paradigm” is broken. Cyber attacks in the UK, for example, cost the country’s businesses 18 billion pounds (EUR 24.6 billion) in lost revenue and 16 billion pounds in increased IT spending per year as a result of these hacks. It is clear that all “stakeholders” in the sector “benefit” from the current situation. We need to take the entire system to a new level of security and reliability if it is going to work for Europe’s citizenry.

Time is pressing. We are already entering a hybrid world of the “internet of things” where a huge range of devices are – or will be – connected to the cloud or local servers (i.e., the proverbial “smart” refrigerator that monitors your consumption of milk and orders its replacement from an on-line supplier).

However, the cyber-individual today has lost control of this kind of digital information. We need a new approach…one based on transparency and awareness of how this “personal” digital information – in the widest sense of the word – is manipulated, stored and processed in the our century.

This also calls for a digital space for Europe that is independent of the looming US web corporations. At its most fundamental this independence is necessary for control over our daily life in Europe.

Uber, the US-owned on-line private taxi service, is not going to repair the potholes in our roads. AirBnB, the mushrooming US-owned private lodging service, will not build social housing. Google is not going to invest in education our ghetto youth in Europe’s inner cities. But it has invested in more than a dozen robotic companies. This will not create jobs; to the contrary it will help destroy the last remaining blue collar jobs but without offering any compensation to those who have lost their livelihood.

If today’s trends continue, then I predict that in less than five years dynamic and variable pricing will abolish fixed prices across many sectors and for many goods. For example, one can easily imagine a future where the consumer – equipped with an NFC (“near field communication”) phone that communicates with other chip-embedded objects around him — will receive a price, his price, tailored to his socio-economic profile as based on his digital data.

Our governments won’t have much control over this, just as today they have very little control over our online identities. These lack of control will spill over into the ‘real’ world, meaning that Amazon will have more agency to determine the level of wages in France that the French government itself, let alone the EU.

To rectify this negative evolution, Europe’s digital infrastructure, gateways, platforms and “app” or service stores should be in public hands. Why? Because in a connected world security is a process. As a concept it needs to be distributed over the person, the objects affiliated with that person and the immediate digital “surroundings”. Thus, any party aiming to do ‘security’ must have some agency on all these levels.

This requires a secure, stable and innovative federated identity management vision – and a device for the citizen that functions as his “passport”. This could be modelled after Estonia’s national e-card, a picture-smart card that acts as a personal controller to all connected devices. It could enable Europe’s 500 million-plus citizens to gradually take control and manage more of their everyday services within the “service store” area of the EU.

In the end, this would lead to a “Smart Europe” for everybody – and not just for the rich in their physically and digitally gated “smart city” communities.

     Rob van Kranenburg is Community Manager within the EU-funded research project SocIoTal (sociotal.eu) a founder of Council Global, a think-tank focused on the internet of things. He can be reached at: kranenbu@xs4all.nl

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