Editor’s note: Tom Snyder, executive director of rapidly growing Raleigh-based RIoT and a thought leader in the emerging Internet of Things, recently joined WRAL TechWire’s list of top drawer contributors. “Datafication Nation” premiers today. His columns will be part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday package.


RALEIGH – As the internet became a more and more integral part of business in the 1990’s, companies recognized the need to conduct online business securely and privately.  In 1996, Microsoft originated the concept of a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, as a means to allow employees anywhere in the world to be connected via the public internet, while at the same time in a protected, private network.

A VPN protects users in a number of different ways, including anonymizing the IP address of a user’s computer, hiding it’s physical location, encrypting data and blocking website data tracking, ISP bandwidth throttling and advertising pop-ups. Today, an estimated 31% of global internet traffic is conducted via VPN. While VPNs can be used by private individuals, the majority of VPN usage remains as an enterprise tool.

As we increasingly live our private lives online, I believe the market is ripe for a new paradigm of individual data security and privacy. It is time for individual consumers to be able to conduct our “business” with the same anonymity, data security and privacy that corporations expect for their private operations. I propose the creation of Virtual Private Assistants.

If you use a loyalty card when purchasing your groceries, you may be surprised to learn that the data collected becomes one of the major revenue streams for grocery chains. Health insurers purchase data from grocers to better understand the foods we eat, so they can optimize insurance premiums. Increasingly auto insurance is doing the same, collecting data from the vehicles we drive.

For years, our online purchasing habits have been collected, to the point where today, if everyone on my street looks up the same item to purchase on Amazon, we each are likely to be provided different prices, based on an algorithm’s prediction of what we individually might pay.

It is time for consumers to have stronger say in the use of their data – including the ability to completely opt of providing any data at all. Why, for example, do you need to provide personally identifiable digital information to book a haircut, or reserve a table at a restaurant?  Digital proof of identity isn’t required for those transactions, yet as those services have worked to shift consumers to book online, they do so in order to facilitate (and in some cases force) electronic data collection.

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It is unlikely that the federal government will impose sweeping new privacy regulations any time soon. But there is a huge market opportunity to leverage generative AI, blockchain and advanced encryption technologies to create what I’ll call a Virtual Private Assistant or VPA.

People are already experimenting with using AI assistants to book travel, schedule appointments, create shopping lists and execute all manner of other day-to-day tasks. Imagine if you could task your assistant to set that dinner reservation and haircut appointment, and they do so with the equivalent of an anonymized IP address, just like how VPN’s authenticate a computer, but keep it anonymous to the internet providers and other neutral parties.

When you arrive at your appointment, you tap your phone on a terminal, or authenticate with a location-based alert so the business knows the reservation is yours. You never have to actually share your name or other personal information for these basic services.

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Your VPA could purchase things online, authenticating the purchase and payment transaction, but keeping your personal information, including your name and location private. The order itself is simply given an order number. When a courier arrives to collect the order for delivery, they can receive your delivery address, but don’t need details of what’s in the package. All the transaction details can remain in the consumer’s records, to facilitate future action, for example if a product were to need to be returned.

Your personal information, including your name, age, address, credit cards, airline loyalty accounts and so forth, could all be encrypted and stored privately, but secured on a neutral ledger in the same way blockchain authenticates cryptocurrency transactions.

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In “regulated” situations, like proving your actual identity to board a flight or proving your age to purchase a beer, those data elements would be shared, but only the minimum of what is needed for the transaction. Compare that to today where a bartender checking an ID can see your address, eye color and organ donor status – private information clearly unrelated to the sale of alcohol.

A VPA service would give consumers the option to live their lives without the persistent and often surreptitious data collection that big-tech is conducting today. Of course, individuals could opt-in to data sharing, in cases where they feel the value they get in return is commensurate with the data they share. This could be a blanket policy with a particular company or it could be a case-by-case decision, like an extra screen tap at a grocery or other point of sale each time you check out.

It is time for Virtual Private Assistants, to help us to continue to live our lives online, but more privately and securely than ever before.