This year privacy-first tech will (slowly) start going mainstream

"In 2020, we will see a household name (my money’s on Apple) announce a product feature that offers its users far more control over their data"


05 Feb 2020
Paul Blow

One of the defining images of 2019 was Mark Zuckerberg standing in front of a screen at F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference, that stated: “The future is private”. After years of controversies, security breaches and privacy violations that have placed it under intense scrutiny, Facebook and the other big technology companies are now changing their tune. In 2020, privacy will be at the heart of technology companies’ offerings.

Pressure to change has come initially from regulators. In the first 18 months of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, there have been more than 200,000 court cases involving companies that have failed to safeguard user data, leading to multimillion-euro fines. And in the US, California and New York have passed laws protecting online privacy, with others set to follow.

But beyond the headline-grabbing numbers, it’s not clear whether any of these measures have made a real difference to how companies think about and address privacy. Their business models, which are dependent on profiting from our personal information, make it hard for them to do so. Next year, all that will change as privacy moves from the fringe to the mainstream.

During the last few years, enabling selective sharing, even in fully private platforms and products, has become a concern for consumers. Companies such as Streetbees, which uses informed consent to allow users to selectively monetise their data, and Tinybeans, which allows families to share photos securely, have grown solid user bases. And even with a relatively tiny 0.18 per cent market share, private browser DuckDuckGo still completes 30 million searches a day.

Next year, this approach to privacy will become a key value both for new startups and the big technology companies. Startups will be putting privacy at the centre of their businesses’ value propositions and user experiences. And the big companies will be forced by consumer demand to adjust their business models, creating a shift from “technology for good” to “technology that is good”. The result will be new ways of doing business, deeper transparency and the opportunity for us to reimagine the value exchange of the internet.

We’re already seeing the potential a new wave of startups will bring. Canopy is a good example – founder Brian Whitman, having created Spotify’s Discover Weekly algorithm, has built an app that uses what is called differential privacy to generate daily content recommendations, where no data ever leaves users’ phones – and no email login is required. And Solid, founded by Tim Berners-Lee, is reimagining the internet in a way that allows individuals absolute control over who, where, and how companies access their personal information.

In 2020, we’ll see far more demand from founders, entrepreneurs, employees and investors to change technology’s existing business models. This will include proactive measures to ensure that technology is responsibly designed to protect consumer privacy, promotes human well-being and supports further innovation. Technology can and should be a force for creating opportunity and social good, and companies focused on building privacy-first solutions will shine.

And the impetus won’t just come from startups. In 2020, we will see a household name (my money’s on Apple) announce a product feature that offers its users far more control over their data, leading to more innovation and creativity across the industry. And, from the point of view of us consumers, there will be no going back. Now that we understand that we can (and should) have the delightful and personalised internet experiences we’re used to, built on technology that prevents our data from being shared and monetised, why would we settle for anything less?

Sarah Drinkwater is director of the Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omidyar Network

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