There is a lot of noise in the privacy space, says serial entrepreneur and Digi.me founder Julian Ranger. And cutting through that noise is one of the big challenges he reckons stands in the way of his current startup. But the concept behind Digi.me is so intriguing that you really have to hope the team manages to make themselves heard.
Today the UK startup is announcing a £4.2 million ($6.1M) Series A round of funding, led by global re-insurer Swiss Re. That’s right; the lead investor here is not a tech-focused VC firm but a global reinsurance giant. Getting corporate partners in place who see the value of Digi.me’s data exchange vision — and are thus persuaded to buy in to helping achieve it — is one key plank of a strategy for bagging the critical mass of users needed to deliver on a radical rethink of how personal data is collected and shared online.
We’ve seen a few other startups (e.g. People.io) seeking to make mileage out of the notion that users are currently getting a bad deal when they trade personal data online in exchange for access to free services. But Digi.me claims it’s pushing to go broader and deeper — aiming to build a data-sharing platform that gives users total control.
Ranger has been formulating this grand plan for more than five years now, biding his time, he says, until the industry especially caught up with the thinking — and Swiss Re’s investment now suggests that’s starting to happen.
Digi.me wasn’t always so ambitious. Originally it was launched as a social media back-up service back in 2009, funded with £20,000 of Ranger’s own money. And at this point the app — which has some 400,000 users across 140 countries — still bills itself as a photo search utility to lets users trawl multiple social services and (re)share content they’ve previously posted to their networks.
But that’s now just phase one of a much grander plan. The big vision is to rethink the data value exchange, tipping the control scales back in favor of users while simultaneously helping businesses gain access to higher quality user data. And the key to getting there is letting people choose who and how to share their data. So informed consent rather than disingenuous data-harvesting. That’s Digi.me’s big bet.
It is deliberately structured so it’s not handling any of its users’ personal data itself. Nor is there any centralized pot of all users’ data to pose an attractive target for hackers. Data remains stored on individuals’ own devices (there will also be a personal cloud option for people to choose from in future, should they wish, such as Dropbox or Google Drive; and Digi.me plans to offer users their own free virtual PC for more demanding data processing tasks). Data is also encrypted locally. And Digi.me does not hold any encryption keys.
Ranger couches Digi.me’s envisaged role as equivalent to being both a librarian and a postman; so affording users access to all their information by connecting it within an architecture that allows searches and other processing functions to be performed. And also by providing people with tools to selectively share data — when and where they see value in doing so.
Each of these data exchanges will involve a explicit contract — in digital certificate form — between the individual and the company in question. This will specify what data the company will get; what will they do with it; what will they give back in exchange for it; what data they will retain if any; what data they will they share with third parties if any; and whether they will implemented the European ‘Right To Forget’ (coming in the new GDPR so a regulatory compliance requirement for companies operating in Europe).
“Towards the middle end of 2010 I suddenly realized what we were doing,” says Ranger, describing how the idea evolved from basic app to a radical rethinking of the data value exchange.