Oxford Martin researchers explore global views on data privacy

19 March 2024

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Department of Computer Science researchers from the University of Oxford’s Oxford Martin Programme on Ethical Web and Data Architectures (EWADA) are trying to better understand people’s values over who manages the sharing of their personal information online through an expansive research project and would like you to share your views.

The Digital Autonomy Machine Experiment aims to explore how the public would like to exercise their autonomy when it comes to managing their data. It is specifically investigating whether people would like to manage their personal information independently, through a trusted organisation (data trust), or through a semi- or fully-automated system.

Dr Samantha-Kaye Johnston, research lead of the Digital Autonomy Machine Experiment and Research Associate at EWADA, said of the research’s importance:

‘True empowerment starts with awareness, especially in the digital age where critical thinking about personal data management is crucial. Digital autonomy is about giving people a choice in the consent mechanisms that underpin the sharing of their data in digital spaces. At the heart of the Digital Autonomy Machine Experiment is our commitment to providing the public with opportunities to shape how their data is handled in the age of AI.’

It's essential to recognise that preferences regarding the exercise of data autonomy can vary significantly based on cultural contexts. This global experiment will provide the critical insights to inform the design of our technologies.

Underpinning the Digital Autonomy Machine Experiment is the concept that an individual’s scattered data can be gathered and consolidated in a secure space called a Personal Online Data Store, or Solid Pod. Developed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee – inventor of the World Wide Web, Professorial Research Fellow and director of EWADA – a Solid Pod can accommodate various bits of data such as contacts, files, photos, and everything else about a particular person. The individual can then decide who has access to that data and even what information gets shared. In other words, they have absolute autonomy over what to share, with whom, what to receive, and retract such permissions anytime they want.

However, the researchers also understand that autonomy can mean different things to different people, which is why the Digital Autonomy Machine Experiment was launched.

‘We're thrilled to invite public opinions worldwide to influence the development of Solid Pods, aligning with our goal of fostering digital autonomy,’ said Dr Samantha-Kaye Johnston.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Professorial Research Fellow and Director of EWADA, said of the Solid Pods that aim to help create a better internet as part of his SOLID protocol:

‘Solid Pods re-organise the global data infrastructure by placing individuals at the centre of their data storage, shifting control away from both applications and centralised data monopolies. With Solid Pods, each individual has a personal data repository, enabling them to dictate access and reverse the current power dynamic. This new model not only fosters cross-platform collaboration but also grants individuals the autonomy to leverage their data for personal insights and benefits.’

The project is hoping to engage with up to 1 million adults (aged 18 and above) across the world to take a carefully designed 10-minute survey. Participants are being invited to thoughtfully consider their values regarding what process is used to manage personal information in each fictional scenario presented in the survey.

Dr Jun Zhao, research lead of the EWADA project, Oxford Martin Fellow and Senior Researcher at the University’s Department of Computer Science, said:

‘EWADA is uniquely positioned to produce ground-breaking technologies to empower everyone’s data autonomy. However, it's essential to recognise that preferences regarding the exercise of data autonomy can vary significantly based on cultural contexts.

‘This global experiment will provide the critical insights to inform the design of our technologies and ensure the inclusivity and equality that is central to the vision of EWADA.’

The results of the research will provide critical inputs to inform the development of technology in EWADA that respects people’s data autonomy preferences in digital environments and ultimately ensures the internet is a safer, more empowered place.