*We have updated this article after a response from YouGov CEO Stephan Shakespeare.

YouGov, the London-listed polling and market research company, has diversified its offering in recent months, in a (successful) effort to generate more revenues. It is now focusing less on traditional market research activities, and more on “real-time data analytics” — ie data that is served up in some kind of intelligible and useful format as soon as it is generated. 

Over at FT sister publication Investors Chronicle earlier this month, Alex Hamer spoke to YouGov chief executive Stephan Shakespeare about this strategy shift, and specifically about the company’s new “YouGov Direct” division. This, the company says, “empowers consumers with greater control of their data and creates the opportunity for them to obtain fair value from its use”.

Or, to put it another way, here’s Shakespeare (from Alex’s piece):

It lets you do things that would be creepy, if it wasn’t for the fact that actually the person selling it is wanting to do that.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well as you’d expect, like all great new things, YouGov Direct also happens to be blockchain-flavoured. “But Y tho?” we hear you ask, in exasperated unison.

From the company’s website:

We used blockchain technology to support YouGov Direct because it helps to tackle many of the challenges we see in the audience data market. It turns permission (or consent) into a verifiable audit trail of transactions that can be referenced by businesses to provide GDPR assurance and creates complete transparency of data use from data subject (consumer) to data user (advertiser).

But, we’re confused. We thought the whole point of a blockchain was that it is tamper-proof? How could data held in perpetuity on a decentralised blockchain possibly be GDPR-compliant, given that one of the key elements of the new(ish) EU regulation is the right to be forgotten? (Indeed, we have written about this precise problem before.) 

Shakespeare got in touch with us to explain how the information held on YouGov Direct is GDPR-compliant, because personal data is not in fact held on their “blockchain”; instead, he says the record shows only an encrypted ID, value, and the type of data used, adding: 

All users have the right to be forgotten, which can be done by request or using the delete button within the app. All personal data is then deleted. The block that remains records only that a transaction happened between a user and an organisation, its value and the type of data used. YouGov Direct does not store personal data on the blockchain.

So unlike in a regular blockchain environment — where nothing can be deleted because i m m u t a b i l i t y — with the YouGov Direct platform, deleting your personal information is as simple as, um, pressing delete.

But that’s not meant to happen. Blockchain is meant to be an append-only system — once data is in, it’s in (whether or not that data is to be trusted, which is one of our main criticisms of the distributed dream-ledger). The reason this can happen in this case is that the YouGov Direct blockchain doesn’t appear to really be a blockchain.

Alex put this to Shakespeare, saying that what he was in fact describing was an internal company system rather than a distributed ledger, at which point he was told (emphasis ours): 

It is a blockchain; it’s not a public blockchain. As we expand this, we’re going to do something some of us have done, which is to have three or five hosts that are like academic institutions or whatever that are trusted. If you actually distribute it to hundreds or thousands, it becomes highly inefficient. As you know there are still unsolved problems with bitcoin and so on. How you make it efficient as a system, it’s got a lot of friction in it, this is frictionless pretty much, and you get all the advantages, after all we’re not dealing with money, this isn’t a money system. What you want to do is know that this can’t be tampered with, and if you have five hosts for the data, and they’re all trusted institutions you’re going to trust it. 

Shakespeare said a similar thing to us directly, adding that the “semi-private blockchain model” they were moving towards (at the moment their blockchain is totally private) “is the same model that many of the world’s biggest financial institutions and companies (e.g. IBM) have chosen to use”. 

But just because other companies are are doing the same thing, that doesn’t make it a good idea. We don’t think private blockchains — or semi-private ones, for that matter — make sense.

The whole point of a blockchain is the idea that by having a distributed network of computers processing and recording data, it can’t be tampered with. The point is to “disintermediate trust”, to use the jargon. But YouGov isn’t doing that; in fact users need to put their trust in the company itself to maintain the records, or, in the future, in “three or five hosts that are like academic institutions or whatever that are trusted”.

Academic institutions (“or whatever”) aren’t inherently more trustworthy than any other establishment (in fact sometimes, quite the opposite). Also, if you’re just going to use a few academic institutions to provide the “trust” element for your empowerment-via-selling-yourself platform, why do you need to do so via a blockchain? If these institutions can be trusted, there’s no need for a blockchain — the blockchain bit is meant to obviate the need for trust. If they can’t be trusted, then having them in control of the whole database seems like a bad idea. 

Related links:
Blockchain insiders tell us why we don’t need blockchain — FT Alphaville
Immutable ledgers meet European data protection — FT Alphaville 
YouGov benefits from real-time data — Investors Chronicle

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YouGov’s “blockchain-based” Sell-your-own Data Platform Makes No Sense (*update) 
YouGov’s “blockchain-based” Sell-your-own Data Platform Makes No Sense (*update) 
YouGov’s “blockchain-based” Sell-your-own Data Platform Makes No Sense (*update) 
YouGov’s “blockchain-based” Sell-your-own Data Platform Makes No Sense (*update) 

YouGov’s “blockchain-based” Sell-your-own Data Platform Makes No Sense (*update) 

YouGov’s “blockchain-based” Sell-your-own Data Platform Makes No Sense (*update)