In theory, a startup called Digi.me can liberate your personal data from tech giants such as Google and Facebook.
The company’s mission is to round up all the information that companies have collected on you, then hand it over to you for safekeeping on Dropbox, OneDrive, or another cloud storage service. Digi.me doesn’t collect or store the data itself, but instead acts as a middleman between you and other apps that want to use your personal information.
“We want to have more awesome data-driven experiences,” says Shane Green, Digi.me’s CEO, speaking on behalf of everybody on the internet. “We just want it to be done with us having control over our own data.”
On Tuesday, Digi.me launched the first batch of those applications, though they’re less liberating than you might expect. By connecting to services like Facebook, Fitbit, Yodlee (a banking data aggregator), and MyChart (which offers access to some online medical records), Digi.me’s new apps allow you to analyze your sentiment across different social networks, categorize the expenses from across different bank accounts, get alerted to the warning signs for retinopathy based on health and fitness data, and more.
Useful as those applications may be, they only hint at what Digi.me hopes to accomplish. In the future, Green expects you’ll be able to combine your health and activity data for better preventative care, analyze how social media affects your purchase history or overall health, or even get paid for volunteering your data to marketers.
Also, having all your data in one place could help you switch from one company’s products to those of a competitor. For instance, moving from Spotify to YouTube Music would be easier if you could transfer favorite artists, albums, and playlists with the click of a button. If YouTube Music worked with Digi.me—Spotify already does—this could be a reality.
To that end, Digi.me plans to add more sources of data over time, including activity within Google services and purchase history on Amazon. Developers that want to build apps around this data can then pay Digi.me on a per-transaction basis or set up a revenue sharing agreement.
“We want to have a decentralized app ecosystem that lets developers come in and innovate, and lets users figure out which app developers they trust enough to share their data with,” Green says.
Still, there are limits to what Digi.me can collect on user’s behalf.
Facebook, for instance, will allow developers to access users’ post histories when they’ve received permission from both the user and from Facebook, but it’s less forthcoming about how it determines what appears in users’ news feeds. Google lets developers access users’ Gmail accounts and Drive storage, but not their search histories.
Tech companies might argue that they’re just trying to protect users’ privacy–letting developers run amok with user data is what led to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, after all–but restricting access to data also helps shut out competition, especially as companies look to funnel that data into AI-driven products.
“People say it’s hard to change your email address now, or change from Android to Apple because of all the lock-in that’s there. Wait until there’s a whole set of learnings about you from machine learning and AI,” Green says. “It’s going to be almost impossible to start from scratch with a service if you can’t take some of that additional value-added data out.”
Green is a strong proponent of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect in May. Those rules require companies to get clear consent before collecting people’s personal data, and–more importantly for Digi.me–allow people to access the data that companies have stored. But exactly what that means is still up for debate.
But exactly what that means is still up for debate, as the most useful information that companies have about you remains locked away. “This is really what the battleground is going to be in the next few years: What data does the user have a right to?” Green says.
Having spent some time with Digi.me’s service this week, I’m not sure the company’s quite ready to be the liason between app makers and our personal data. Its own app design is a bit clunky, and connecting various online services to your cloud storage app of choice requires a fair amount of work for not a lot in return. But the idea of giving users the tools to work with their own personal data is at least worth pursuing.