March 10, 2014
Stanford lab yields new privacy-based social network
With rising public interest in what developers refer to as the "privacy economy," a new app allows users to control their personal data.
By Andrew Myers
Amid much fanfare, word came last week that Facebook was acquiring messaging application WhatsApp for $19 billion. In the days that followed, competitors saw a flood of traffic. Industry watchers heralded the move as a bellwether of the deep public distrust of the largest of today's social networks.
Against this backdrop, researchers from the MobiSocial Lab at the Stanford School of Engineering have announced a new type of social network, called Omlet, which shields users from the monetization of their personal lives by giving them total and unquestioned control of their personal data.
Billions of people conduct their personal lives and house much of their personal data via such proprietary social channels, essentially giving their private data away. They offer up valuable information about their networks of friends and colleagues, their personal photos and life events and, often, their deepest desires and fears.
The social media giants, in turn, claim ownership of, and profit from, this data, a practice referred to as "monetization" of personal information.
Omlet's creators are heralding the release as the first venture of what they call the "privacy economy." The privacy economy is based on the principle of protecting users' privacy, first and foremost. The service is free to consumers, and does not monetize the data they share.
Free of data monetization
"With news of NSA eavesdropping and the ever-inscrutable, ever-evolving privacy policies of proprietary social networks, the public is increasingly and understandably concerned about where, when and how their personal information is being used," said Monica Lam, a professor of computer science at Stanford and founder of the MobiSocial lab and a startup by the same name, MobiSocial.
MobiSocial was founded by Lam and three of her former Stanford PhD students, Ben Dodson, T. J. Purtell and Ian Vo. The lab was an offshoot of a $10 million grant by the National Science Foundation in 2008, specifically aimed at creating a Programmable Open Mobile Internet, or POMI for short.
"At POMI, our group was concerned about privacy from the very start," Lam said. "We were looking to drive a new type of messaging and app platform that is free of monetization of data. That's what the privacy economy is all about."
"Omlet is the first platform that puts control of that data back in the users' hands in an app environment that is as easy to use as any of today's most popular social channels," added Dodson.
To illustrate Omlet's ease of use, Lam described how a group of wedding guests might join a private, on-site chat at which they share a jointly created photo album in real time on their smartphones. Later, they'd be able to easily recall those photos by simply entering data about the occasion – the name of the bride or groom, for instance.
In technical terms, Omlet is a "distributed semantic file system," which means that the data storage is decentralized and, therefore, not under the control of any one network. The data exists instead as a collection of private files stored on each network member's personal cloud storage service of choice and is fully indexed for easy recall.
Students at Stanford, for instance, are accorded a personal Box.net account with 25 gigabytes of storage space when they enroll. Using Omlet, all their social interactions, shared photos, likes and dislikes can be directed to this private repository, far from prying eyes.
"Omlet users are not even tied into any one cloud storage service; they could just as easily choose to direct their files to Dropbox, Google Drive, Baidu Cloud or other cloud system of their choice," said Purtell.
With open and free APIs, Omlet is customizable by outside developers. Lam likens Omlet to a browser. How people choose to create web pages is up to the programmers.
Andrew Myers writes for the School of Engineering.
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