Dr Denis Roio: We want people to have full control over their data

The power to “predict the future” is in the hands of those who know most of our behaviours and desires

Photo: Maria Koleva Dr Denis Roio

Our work in the EU-funded DECODE project is being used by Facebook for its new Libra project, through an “acqui-hire” of some of our former colleagues. This choice is an attempt to gain a strategic advantage in this market and establish a monopoly exactly where we intend to create an open field of opportunities for Europe's digital single market, says Dr Denis Roio, a software artisan, CTO and co-founder of Dyne.org Think &Do Tank and software house, in an interview to Europost.

Dr Roio, DECODE provoked the appetite of Facebook. What is that EU project about?

The DECODE project is the first ever H2020 research project granted by the European Commission in 2016 to research on distributed ledger technologies (blockchain) and today the EC considers it a flagship project within its portfolio of digital innovations.

I'm DECODE's technical coordinator and Francesca Bria is the principal investigator of the project, which includes pilots in the most advanced “smart cities” of Europe, Amsterdam and Barcelona.

Our project provides tools to manage private identities and smart-city sensor data in a decentralised and privacy-aware fashion to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a few platform operators.

We thought DECODE was necessary because of pressing concerns about the commodification of people's data by global monopolies: a few companies (the so-called FAGMA) control all data exchanges and make huge profits from them. We look at the centralisation of the internet as a process that slows innovation and challenges the potential of this technology to revolutionise society and the economy in a pluralistic manner.

What we want is a Europe where strong digital rights give people full control over their data, maintaining privacy and trust in the systems they use. We also believe Europe should provide a level playing field enabling social entrepreneurs and free software and open hardware developers to implement innovative approaches and applications, opening up new economic and social perspectives.

Our dream is to preserve the digital sovereignty of European and all other citizens, preventing unauthorised usage of their personal data, on clouds, social networks and the Internet of Things.

What are DECODE's achievements so far?

With DECODE we have achieved to develop a full stack of tools to run a distributed computing platform and ledger technology featuring end-to-end encryption and privacy by design, something that lowers the liability of any company operating with private data by making it easier to respect the GDPR with less work.

Among the tools we have developed are a free and open source box to scan European (and all RFID compatible) passports using a simple Raspberry Pi box and a webcam, to produce zero-knowledge proof credentials.

The most impressive scientific achievement consists of a core component (Zenroom) allowing to write smart-contracts and business rules in simple human language (Zencode). This is a very secure virtual machine executing operations based on what is written in these contracts and the main goal is that of facilitating the review of code by people who don't know programming languages, but have equally important background knowledge of legal terms. For instance, a data protection officer designated according to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is able to review in great detail the conditions of data as operated and stored even in complex decentralised computing setups.

Also the “Coconut” academic paper with the rather complex title “Threshold Issuance Selective Disclosure Credentials with Applications to Distributed Ledgers” by colleagues at UCL is a new groundbreaking scientific paper leveraging “zero-knowledge proof” cryptography based on elliptic curves. If this sounds all too complicated let it just be enough to say that the paper caught the attention of Facebook to the point that the company acqui-hired our colleagues to work on the controversial Libra project.

How did a Facebook commercial project on digital currency take advantage of it?

Facebook's value is based on the knowledge it gathers about people - their relationships, preferences, neednd demands - as an intermediary to all communications.

According to our research partners at CNRS (Sorbonne), Facebook's vast database can be considered as knowledge commons, but it is very far from being managed according to any of the principles of commons based economies. To the contrary, we have seen - for example with the Cambridge Analytica scandal - that platform companies like Facebook are the place where our attention is for sale, even when the intention is spreading misinformation, deceiving people and manipulating elections.

Private data about people and the possibility to sell targeted advertisements based on it is the main asset of Facebook. Now imagine what would happen with Libra, when Facebook also operates transactions of money: how much more data can this company collect about everyone?

What would such a company do by taking the role of banks, credit organisations, financial transaction processors?

The power to “predict the future” is in the hands of those who know most of our behaviours and desires. The control of the “psychological function” of money (and its creation, arguably by means of taxation) is at stake here. We must be aware that credit risk mitigation and risk assessment are enormous business opportunities for our knowledge-based societies - and Facebook aims to be a monopolist in this sector.

Facebook's strategy then is clear: in DECODE we have managed to produce the most advanced cryptography technology since Bitcoin's existence, on top of two years of public-funded research. Our work in the EU-funded DECODE project is being used by Facebook for its new Libra project, through an “acqui-hire” of some of our former colleagues. The choice of acqui-hiring some of us is an attempt to gain a strategic advantage in this market and establish a monopoly exactly where we intend to create an open field of opportunities for Europe's digital single market.

What is the weight of the DECODE tool within the whole system that the social media giant is going to launch probably next year?

The weight of DECODE in Libra is mostly related to the Coconut cryptography scheme. Our testing and implementation in pilots have validated Coconut from the first theoretical formulation to an extremely flexible and interoperable implementation called Zenroom. That is why we have adopted free software licensing (AGPLv3) that is supposed to scare away a big giant like Facebook and keep friendly to small and medium enterprises.

I have faith in Europe and the principles leading our community, and I hope that the wild extraction and monetisation of private data that Facebook intends to operate will never be a feasible business model. I am also pleased to see that my concerns are shared by regulators in USA.

Talking about “acqui-hiring”, do you think an additional legislation is needed to address the “revolving doors” practices?

I am not an expert in policy making, and I also like to think we live in a free society where we can do the work we love and which makes us most passionate and gratified. But yes, if we want to sustain Europe's innovative potential, we must be sure that its exploitation is not done by foreign monopolies.

Given the weak targeting and still too scarce funding that reaches the young and strong innovators in Europe, I believe it could be counter-productive to impose non-competitive clauses on anyone getting close to public funded research. I'd be rather cautious with that and make sure that research is a truly sustainable practice and not just a one-time accelerated opportunity. This must be true especially for social innovation: we need long-term planned sustainability programmes for innovation that is not strictly bound to profit and profitable markets, but concerns the governmentability of our societies, the integrity of our political context, people's data and even more smart-city scenarios. In order to do this, nation states, regions and cities must go on the first line, adopting and sustaining innovations, and the public sector must make more efforts to understand their potential.

Which brings me to the next argument. At the “higher spheres” of Europe, there certainly is a problem of revolving doors, it becomes evident by following the career of some high profile individuals. It is important to understand this has not just an effect on private careers, but on the awareness of institutions of what is real innovation, for instance on the value of free software development when compared to proprietary software and lock-in corporate procurements. Obviously there is a high possibility for conflicts of interest when certain doors are open for those who are in charge.

What useful to society tools and software is your organisation Dyne developing?

Dyne.org exists since 2000 as a foundation committed to research and development of free and open source software and services. We act in support of artists, creatives and engaged citizens in the digital age with tools, practices and narratives for community empowerment.

The most popular software I've published back in the early days was the dyne:bolic live CD distribution: a complete operating system that included free media players and producers, 100% free (endorsed by the Free Software Foundation) with no strings attached. Dyne:bolic GNU/Linux was very popular for running on XBOX game consoles and therefore useful to recycle hardware and put the rapidly ageing production of the entertainment industry to good use.

Through the years, we produced many free and open source software applications. Here is a small selection of the most popular ones: software for streaming online radios (Multiple Streaming Engine started in 2002); software to composite live video information with complex overlays (FreeJ started in 2004 and was used for VJing, but also for medical visualisation).

We developed as well software to securely and privately store files (Tomb started in 2007 and is the most used software of its kind on the Linux platform, also for cloud storage, and it gathers many contributors); and software to track the activity of Internet of Things devices on local area networks, track what computers they connect to and make people aware of what they do in real time, granting them the right to switch them off-line with a click (Dowse started in 2013 and won an Internet Society Award in the Netherlands).

We also presented software to run and customise lightweight operating systems for more than 30 different ARM boards (Devuan GNU/Linux started in 2014 and since then made headlines all over the world); and software to operate complex cryptographic transformations for data authentication, signature and protection using simple human language rules (Zenroom started in 2017 and is the core software component of DECODE, the flagship European project on blockchain research).

Ranging from radio makers, humanitarian organisations, artists, medics, activists and educators, a large amount of people employed and redistributed our software worldwide and free of charge.

Can innovation become Europe's comparative advantage, according to you? This year's high-level EU policy roundtable - organised by Friends of Europe and in which you took part - focused on the topic.

Yes, Europe can be a champion of social innovation, digital rights and good practices of e-government and entrepreneurship. It is already doing so with the European Commission “Next Generation Internet” initiative, and I'm very happy we at Dyne.org are mentoring one of its funding programmes, the LEDGERproject.EU which this year again will award €200,000 equity-free funding for ventures aiming at sustainable social innovation projects in the fields of health, economy, mobility, public services and energy. I would urge all readers to apply!

 

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Dr Denis Roio is a software artisan, chief technology officer (CTO) and co-founder of Dyne.org Think &Do Tank and software house. Dr Roio is better known by his hacker nickname Jaromil and develops free and open source software applications focusing on decentralisation, privacy and independent media practices, cryptography and distributed ledger technologies. He holds a PhD, titled Algorithmic Sovereignty, from the Planetary Collegium of the Plymouth University, and received the Vilem Flusser Award in 2009. He is included among the European Young Leaders alumni (40 under 40, 2012) and listed among the top 100 social entrepreneurs in Europe (Purpose Economy, 2014). Dyne.org is associated to the Free Software Foundation Europe.

 

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