Legal trust + technical trust = data trusts

System lock

Society demands a certain amount of transparency and auditability over financial matters. We want to be sure that those in charge of vast wealth are acting properly and within what we as a society have decided is acceptable. Financial impropriety can make or break a reputation. Whether you’re an institution or an individual, if you’re found to be acting improperly with finances, it’s either a serious blow to your reputation, the end of your career, or worse.

As everyday interactions and institutions are moving increasingly online, data about us is becoming ever more important and valuable. We are starting to see that the reputations of the people and companies controlling our data is increasingly based on how they handle it and what they use it for. These institutions are being asked to meet similar levels of accountability over how they put their data assets to work.

European societies took the first step in this direction with the broad reaching and flexible GDPR legislation that has overhauled most of the existing data protection law dating from the late 20th century. It considers real, currently relevant scenarios and makes an effort to anticipate the implications of widespread use of AI and other kinds of automated decision making in the future.

Along with the Open Data Institute, we believe that other legal and legislative changes are necessary in order to support a fully accountable digital future. In their work on data trusts, the ODI outline a legal structure that enables data assets to be held in trust. A data trust defines what behaviours using that data are acceptable, much like trusts of financial assets today.

However, legal structures are only useful when they can be enforced. Without enforcement there is no deterrent to improper behaviour. Along with organisations such as DeepMind, we believe that for something as complex as storing and processing data (especially personal data) there must also be a technical angle to the auditing so that organisations who do right can prove their good standing and those that do not can have a legal consequence enforced against them.

It’s worth remembering that technical trust is also insufficient by itself – without any governance layer, breaches of the technical trust have little consequence. It’s when social and technical trust are brought together that protection over the asset in trust is able to be adequately guaranteed.

There are many ways of linking social trust with technical trust so that effective data audit can take place. Techniques such as those pioneered by Google’s Certificate Transparency project allow certificate authorities to operate under a “trust but verify” model whereby they continue to issue certificates to their customers as they always have but they are able to demonstrate to “monitors” and “auditors” that they have shown the same certificates to everyone and have not covertly issued certificates improperly when under pressure, such as political pressure from a nation state.

Deep Mind is using similar technology to ensure that, as an organisation, it maintains proper control over the data that has been entrusted to it by medical organisations whilst still being able to use it effectively for the proper purpose.

In a data trust, the trust’s charter could require that the trustees (those who hold the data) store it in a verifiable structure that records all of the accesses and changes that are made to the data. For open data sets, this extra transparency allows the trustors (those who own the data) and the general public to have more confidence that no data impropriety is occuring.

If an organisation holds very sensitive data it can instead publish secure metadata that opaquely describes the state of their database, without revealing any of the sensitive data. Periodically the organisation can show the data and the trustees can check that the organisation’s claimed audit trail matches the historically published secure metadata and publicly vouch that the organisation has stored and processed the data properly.

Having such a level of transparency could form part of the requirement for being certified as a B Corporation, or it could lead to an entirely new, publically-recognisable certificate that data is held in a proper manner.

Just like accountancy and financial audit today, data audit is a very technical field, requiring work by certified experts, this auditing process might also be a specialist undertaking. It may be appropriate for trustees to instead appoint an auditor. Performing audit of data trusts could represent a new line of work for traditional auditors and require a new kind of certification that shows the auditor has the relevant processes, protections, assurance and vetting in place.

By privately inspecting the organisation and publicly vouching for it, existing social systems of trust and reputation can be used to ensure that data management is taken as seriously as financial management.

By using a fully integrated technical component to do the bookkeeping, the organisation could appoint more than one auditing firm who would work independently to come to the same conclusions, thus further increasing the reliability of the claims.

The requirements around the social and legal structures of data trusts and data-transparent organisations are only just beginning to surface. Register Dynamics have already been working on a proof of concept implementation, powered by Registers technology. We also embedded the ideas of mutually reinforcing audit logs and independent auditability in our work on the UK government’s Aquae personal data exchange specification.

If you’d like to talk more about data trusts and marrying social and technical trust, please get in touch with us.

Thank you to Peter Wells, Ade Adewunmi, and Kate Roselli for their helpful comments and feedback.