Shane Green cut his teeth building The Map Network, a company he co-founded in 1999 to help organizations such as the Smithsonian and the NFL Super Bowl create, manage, and distribute their own digital maps. That company—which was purchased by Navteq in 2006 and swallowed by Nokia a year later—allowed such concerns to become “an active player in the mapping of their customers’ personal data,” he says.
Now Green is attempting something similar with his new company, but this time he sees consumers—and their need to control and manage their personal data—as his mission. The company Green co-founded in 2009 is called Personal, and it has developed a model for online security that focuses on individuals rather than on the enterprise at a time when consumers and policy makers are expressing concerns about data privacy. He likes to say it’s concerned with small data rather than big data.
“We’ve built a platform around information that people want to control about themselves,” says Green, who is Personal’s chief executive.
The company’s main product is an online personal data locker. The idea is that enough people have become concerned about their privacy online that they are willing to pay a small fee to manage their own online profile. No merchant will be allowed access to key data in that personal data portfolio without its owner’s permission. (The service is in beta testing and currently is being offered at no charge.)
In the future, Personal customers will have the opportunity to offer some of their personal information to marketers at a price, in essence turning the tables on the data-brokering industry.
While Green appreciates that much personal data is already public and available online, he argues that it is future data that holds the most value. “Data is not a lake,” he says, “it’s a river.”
In other words, information about what consumers plan to purchase is more useful to merchants than information about what they purchased in the past. Green says this fact is the leverage consumers can tap to monetize the value of their privacy portfolio—and the company plans to build a market for this data that benefits its customers. “It will be a reverse auction, where individuals will get actual compensation and we’ll get a transaction fee,” he says.
There are other, more workaday uses for Personal’s data locker, including filling out forms requiring private information, automatically. This feature is particularly useful combined with Personal for Education, the company’s new initiative directed toward students, teachers and administrators. With this service, students can fill out financial aid and scholarship forms in a secure environment.
The company also recently opened a portal that allows developers to use Personal’s privacy tools to build security for individuals into their programs from the start. On Dec. 3, Personal announced a partnership with Aetna CarePass, a program for application developers to create applications that help consumers manage their health care data. Aetna, the large health insurer, launched the CarePass program in June.
Green envisions a future where Personal will partner with more companies to boost the level of trust in their relationships with their customers.
That future may be closer than many realize. Doc Searls, an alumnus fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and author of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, says today’s loyalty-card programs “are about customer entrapment. They target, acquire, capture and control consumers – those are the words that are used.”
Once people become aware of these efforts, he argues, they “want to be independent.” Searls says, “What we really need is not reactive solutions that simply stop tracking and block ads.” He advocates proactive solutions such as Personal’s, though he acknowledges there are others. “Personal has been at it a bit longer and is better funded than most,” says Searls.
It’s an emerging privacy market. Others include Azigo, an application to help consumers manage commercial emails and manage their online accounts and Mydex, which provides secure online storage to manage consumers’ personal data. Another company, DataBanker, takes a different tack: it offers a service for corporations to create profitable relationships with customers “in a privacy enriched environment.”
Bill Hoffman, who heads the World Economic Forum’s Telecommunications Industry Group, says he admires Personal’s “notion of a personal data store with a clean, usable interface.” Plus, Hoffman says, “They have a vision of how they fit in to the larger ecosystem.”
It remains to be seen whether Personal can turn the tide of big data analysis to empower the individual. Consumer-directed access to personal information is only in its infancy, whereas data-driven marketing is a multibillion-dollar industry.
But Shane Green believes companies are beginning to realize that employing data brokers is not always good for business. “[Data brokers] increasingly are being viewed as operating outside of the lines,” he says. “It’s dangerous to let other companies control that data for you.”
Alec Foege is a writer and independent research professional based in Connecticut, and author of the upcoming book The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.