Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye
2015, Belgium

Creator of a system to safely store and use personal data

Anonymity and re-identification are two very familiar concepts for the young Belgian Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye. His work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, USA) is focused on researching how big data affects the privacy of individuals and how to safely use data. He has created a system which helps the user to save information from their devices and use it in a privacy-contentious way: anonymously and in a way that prevents third parties from inferring sensitive information such as the user’s personality.

His platform openPDS/SafeAnswers is based on a dual system which allows the user to safely save the data generated by their computer or smartphone. This way the user can control who can access their data and what information they can obtain.

On the one hand, the application stores the data which poses a risk of re-identification and prevents access by unauthorized services. On the other hand it establishes a protocol by which companies can query the platform for general data which do not reveal the identity of the user.

For example, the local transit authority can ask a user in which neighborhood they live, in which neighborhood they work, and how long it takes them to travel between the two in order to generate statistics relevant to civil planning. The platform will provide data relating to the urban areas and the travel time between them, but it will not provide a specific address nor will it indicate an exact route. This way the identity and location of the user remain anonymous.

“Big data is an important source of information for companies, researchers, or government agencies, but they do not need the user specific data,” de Montjoye explains. This innovator equates his system with that of a library from which books cannot be removed: “You can enter, look up information and get an answer, but you may not take the book (not even a photocopy) with you when you leave.”

Although the system was designed to encrypt the data and only release it in order to answer a query, de Montjoye admits that it would be possible to hack. Nevertheless he maintains that such threats are manageable through security and auditing mechanisms. The platform can incorporate a system which monitors the data queries received daily. If the user detects a significant increase in the quantity of queries received they can deduce that there is a failure and revoke all access to the data.

The founder of STAGE-Co and juror for the Innovators Under 35 Belgium competition, Patrick Bosteels, emphasizes that de Monjoye “has achieved an impressive list of successes in an area of crucial impact”.

Currently this application is being tested by a pilot project comprised of 1000 students at the Technological Institute of Denmark in collaboration with de Montjoye´s department. Although he believes his product could be commercialized quickly, he cannot provide an exact launch date yet. But he does maintain that his system has the potential to become an essential tool in “allowing each user to control how their data are used”.