As we always say, whatever technology you decide to use, make sure you are in control of your data. In a great talk, Univention CEO Peter Ganten showed us not a dystopia, or a vision, but reality as it is right now. A reality where not we, but the largest technology companies in this world are having control over our most valuable asset: data.
Peter’s presentation focused on Microsoft, but what Microsoft does is of course just one of many examples. Still, it is a good example, showing us again how easy it is to fall into the dependency trap we blogged about before.
Data: The Most Valuable Strategic Asset
In his presentation, Peter played a video, showing Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at Microsoft Ignite, presenting Microsoft Graph. The video is not just about Graph though. It is about the giants of the software industry having control over our data and using it to earn money.
As Nadella states: “It [Graph] creates perhaps the most strategic data asset for each of you…It captures the knowledge of your people, their relationship with other people inside and outside the organization, their work artefacts, their projects their schedules. That is a very rich data set that you can reason about. You can create additional value inside of your organization”.
It is not hard to see why this is a problem. Take the example provided by Peter Ganten:
Imagine you uploading an Excel sheet, enter data to this sheet, perform calculations and then, after a while, perhaps deleting it. All these actions, are stored somewhere in a database that they own. In this way, Microsoft can, for example, see how good you are in working with Excel or the kind of people you usually share your Excel sheets with.
Obviously, it is not the data you enter in the spreadsheet that is of interest to companies like Microsoft, but your behaviour. Gaining insight into your work-life balance, for example, the percentage of your working week that’s meetings, how often you communicate with certain colleagues, and much more.
Technology-wise these things are great, but privacy-wise they’re less cool. Think about it: there are over 100 million people all over the world using Office 365 only. Microsoft has access to all their user data. Data that many companies are willing to pay big money for. And Microsoft isn’t the only one. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, they’re all doing the same: using data to generate profit.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
According to Microsoft, there is no reason to panic because whether your data is stored in Graph, depends on privacy settings. But what to do if you, as an employee, don’t want your data to be collected at all? In the case of Microsoft, the solution they give users is to opt-out of Delve, the UI that lets you manage your Office 365 profile. Still, this does not mean your data is no longer tracked. Delve still continues to work, you just don’t see the document suggestions in the interface anymore. The only way to solve this is if your admin disables access to Graph. However, if your company wants to use Delve it is not likely they will do this as it will affect the relevance of the content displayed elsewhere in Office 365.
Finally, Microsoft states that in the end ‘you own your data’. But what does this mean if your data is stored in a US cloud? Both Dan Shearer in his whitepaper and Arnoud Engelfriet in this video interview state that storing your data in the US cloud is never safe because EU privacy laws are much stricter than US law and ultimately, American companies must obey US law, not EU law.
How Do You Ensure Your Data Privacy?
So how can you benefit from data insights collected by large software providers while at the same time keeping your data safe? The short answer is: you can’t. As long as you trust a cloud provider with your data, there is a possibility they will make money out of your data or use it for purposes that contradict with your company values. There’s also the small but realistic chance they share your data with, say, the US government, for so-called security reasons. Therefore, you have to decide. Either you enjoy the insights provided by them and accept that your data is being stored and used by a tech giant. Or you stay in control of your data by self-hosting your software, something Microsoft, and most other software giants, won’t let you. Not now and probably not ever.