almost 2 years ago

2030 – data ownership utopia

Welcome to 2030. We’ve unclouded the cloud. Everything went just right. We’ve achieved full data ownership.

Just ten years ago, back in 2020, we were struggling with data ownership, throughout our systems, our culture, and our economy.

Let’s revisit the situation back then. Let’s travel back to 2020.



Here we are. This is how data ownership works at the moment.

  • Problem 1: People don’t own much of their personal data.
    • Okay, people do own the data on their laptop computers. They do own the data on their old hard drives. But that data often isn’t very important anymore.
    • Most of the valuable data lives in the cloud. People create this data by using modern apps – native apps and web browser apps.
      • Personal data (e.g. emails, financial transactions, chat messages sent and received, tax bookings, health data, …)
      • Behavioral / usage data (e.g. how often you opened a particular email)
    • For app creators, it’s technically too hard to even allow people to own their data.
    • The root of the problem: we’re all owning multiple devices and we’re expecting a seamless experience across all devices.
    • So if a company offers help with my taxes, they’ll create one tax app for every type of device I might be using. To sync the tax bookings across all of my devices, they’ll take care of storing and syncing all of my personal data. Either they’ll run their own central database, or they’ll use an external cloud storage provider (AWS, Google Cloud, Azure, …), to store all personal data of all users, centralized, in there. Now even if they wanted to, they’d have a hard time giving me – a single person – live access and ownership to exactly my personal slice of data. I may access my data visually, through their interfaces on my devices, but I’m far from owning my actual data. Well, at least, they’re solving the multi-device problem for me.
    • Now – not just tax companies, but EVERY app provider (email, finance, health, search, …) is solving the multi-device problem that way.
    • In sum: much of our personal data lives in proprietary data formats, in clouds, behind app providers.
    • If you wanted to own your current data just for a moment, you’d need to “ask for an export” of your data, via email, via API, or via some sort of download button.
  • Problem 2: Most people don’t even care about owning their data.
    • Because managing one’s own data is hard.
    • Backing up data is even harder and too technical.
    • So data ownership means obligations to manage that data.
    • Obligations aren’t convenient.
  • Problem 3: Sounds unrelated, but bear with me: phone manufacturers still have too much control over the infrastructure.
    • by not allowing external apps to completely manage my phone’s data.
    • by pre-configuring their own cloud services (Apple Cloud, Google Cloud, …) and slowly nudging people into using those.
    • the consequence: slowed down innovation in phone software, especially around phone operating systems.
  • Problem 4: The “decentralized movement” is distracted by the blockchain.
    • The decentralized movement / web3 started out, inspired with the blockchain. The idea of decentralized digital ownership came up. NFTs were the hype for some time.
    • Projects around “decentralized apps” were started, apps that would “live” on some blockchain, enabling “trustless access”, and finally – maybe – data ownership.
    • The idea was interesting, but mixing decentralization ideas with blockchain technology created a complex mess. The problem remained: blockchains don’t naturally solve data ownership. Instead they create new, very hard problems.
    • Highly trained engineers have become distracted, working to solve these problems, with idealistic goals, with good intentions. But ultimately, data ownership isn’t achieved through blockchain technologies.
  • Problem 5: The advertising economy is taking advantage of all of these problems
    • Since there’s no easy, other way – users give away their data for free.
    • App creators collect that data on a large scale. They use the data to categorize user profiles. Then they offer companies the placement of highly targeted ads.
    • That way, app creators monetize their apps through user data.
    • That way, apps are offered to users for no money.
    • Apps that remain “free” this way defeat market economics. These market economics would otherwise allow for competition through price.

In a great turn of events though, all of these problems are solved in 2030.

So let’s travel BACK TO THE FUTURE.

Back, to 2030.



Yay! Luckily, in terms of hardware and software in the last 10 years – everything went really well. Everyone owns their own data. And people love being in full control.

Let’s see how digital life works now:

  • all of your life’s data lives on your phone, locally.
    • neither in the „Apple Cloud“, nor in the „Google Cloud“
      • nor in any other native cloud
      • no cloud comes pre-configured with your phone
    • all your data lies on your phone’s file system, on the phone’s hard drive (= SSD).
    • all data means
      • ALL data you create proactively (files, photos, videos, …)
      • ALL data you’ll choose to download from the internet
      • ALL “personal product data” (emails, banking transactions, tax information, health records, …) any app (browser app, mobile app, …) creates about you, when you’re using the app.
      • ALL “usage data” or meta information when using an app
      • Even trained machine learning models that influence an app’s personalization for you.
  • Now your phone is your single source of truth – all data you’ll ever need fits in there.
    • Back in 2020, phones were already capable of storing 1 TB of data
    • 1 TB of data was enough for most people’s lifetime back then.
    • Luckily, phone storage capability in 2030 grew with the data needs. So luckily, most people easily carry all of their data in their pockets, all the time.
  • Your phone is now your own personal, “public” cloud provider.
    • Your phone is always connected to the internet, like it already was in 2020.
    • You may use your phone as any app’s data storage.
    • You control selective access to your public cloud (= to your phone’s data)
    • That means: you control which app is allowed access to which part of your data.
    • Sounds technical, but all of this is super convenient to configure.
  • All of the web apps and mobile apps you use, for email, finance, chat, taxes, search, and for anything else, have become only user interfaces working on top of your phone clouddata.
    • storing all personal datathrough the internet, into your phone – no matter which device you’re working from.
    • Remember, back in 2020, data went through the internet, into centralized cloud storage providers you didn’t have access to.
      • back then, you couldn’t bring your private cloud. So AWS, Google Cloud, Azure (Microsoft) Cloud, and countless others were used. Those still exist today, but they’re mostly used for backup + for an app’s business-internal data.
    • apps still process your data, but you own it.
      • apps will still store some additional data on traditional cloud storage to make their app features work.
    • now, regulations require app creators to allow you to use your phone as cloud storage, as soon as their apps handle personal data.
  • Before you use any app that wants to store personal data, you’ll first connect the app to your phone’s cloud
    • to a folder on your phone’s file system to read and write data from.
    • to other content on your phone, to utilize that data.
    • apps suggest the structure (files and folders, names, locations, …), so you don’t have to bother, if you don’t want to.
    • some organizational apps even help keep your data organized, so managing your data has become convenient.
  • Owning your data means it’s easy to take your data with you
    • when you change doctors
    • when you switch tax accountants
    • when you just want to switch to different apps, because you like one more than the other
    • when you move to another address
  • Owning your data is also useful
    • when you want to sell parts of your usage data to be used for machine learning
    • when you want to analyze your data yourself
    • when you want to change some parts of your data
    • when you want to simply delete your data
  • But even if you’re not interested in doing any of the above, you will still, by default, own your data.
  • Backup works conveniently in the background
    • Storing everything in your phone might sound risky. What if you lose your phone? It’s no problem.
    • Open source backup software running on your phone has access to all of your data. This software encrypts and backs up your data redundantly to 3-5 different cloud storage providers of your choice (in 2020, this was already a reality for Desktop computers using Arq).
      • You’ll have to pay an easily affordable price for the storage per month
      • Even if 1-2 storage providers lose parts of your data, you may still recover it
    • The cloud storage providers see only binary blobs – encrypted data.
    • Backup happens partially, in the background, at least every 24 hours, but you can configure it to run even more frequently.
    • When you lose your phone
      • you buy a new phone,
      • you download the open source backup software,
      • you sign in to the cloud storage providers,
      • you download your data back onto your phone,
      • you’re good to go again, you’ve only lost one day of data.
  • You pay with money
    • For your phone
    • For using the individual apps
    • For the cloud storage providers you use for your backup
  • Some apps might still allow you to pay with your data
    • but you’ll still be able to own your data
  • Engineers who were working on the blockchain have moved on to more interesting endeavors.

The end.

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Title photo by Tyler Lastovich

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