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How to Create a Social Contract for the Digital World

October 28, 2019

As he often does, MIT IDE’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland is looking at data through a totally new, wide lens. His latest research focuses not only on the ubiquity of data, but on the related fields of law, society, and government policy that must adapt to new digital norms.

Because “data, along with labor and capital, is now the foundation of our society,” Pentland says, a new “social contract is required” to formalize privacy protections, promote risk mitigation, and clarify data ownership across the globe. The MIT IDE leader described his work in these fields at a recent IDE seminar.

Many have said that data is the new oil, but they don’t really value it in the same way as currency, according to Pentland. The goal of the MIT Trust Data Alliance, which Pentland helped found, is to securely share data insights from various industries. Data has to be reliable, secure, and accountable in order to support business processes and to be shared for societal benefits, he told the MIT attendees.

Secure ledgers, such as blockchain, protect some online transactions, Pentland says, “but we need to federate AI, clearly define data ownership, and create legal frameworks.” To achieve this, he has helped launch the Computational Law Report with several law schools to examine the digitization of legal contracts and legislation. Pentland compares laws to algorithms that codify and decide what is, and is not legal.

As he describes it, a broad, new social contract is needed to address four wide-ranging, key concepts of digital economy:

  • Ownership rights and security;
  • Social structure, including jobs and sustainability;
  • Governance and social fabric such as transparency and responsibility;
  • Collective action to change the world!

As societies use and share data more widely, Pentland — who was a co-leader in discussions that led to the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in the EU — is concerned that “we giving away data too freely.” In Estonia, for example, there are clear legal rules and permissions for data use and continuous audits to track its use. Citizens know who requests personal records and they control access to it via encryption keys. Those are the types of ownership rights and legal protections he would like to see adopted more widely.


The OPAL system, for Open Algorithms for Transparency and Accountability, is another project Pentland under way for better governance and data sharing. [See figure 1] This project “investigates the use of Open Algorithms to obtain better insight about an individual’s digital persona in a given context through a collective sharing of algorithms, governed through a trust network. Algorithms for specific data-sets must be vetted to be privacy-preserving, fair and free from bias.”

Figure 1

The overarching goal of these multiple efforts, according to Pentland, is not just to protect data, but to make it more available for social good — with adequate protections. Secure access to health, demographic, and economic information, for instance, can better disperse medical and educational resources and track population trends.

He asks: “How can we safely use big data from private industry to map social equity?” Toward that end, Pentland envisions many types of data cooperatives and tax schemes that are tailored to the digital economy and will fuel more equitable growth.

Additional research, resources:

More about the MIT Trust Data Alliance can be found here.

More about OPAL can be found here, and details about the MIT Trust::Data initiative and research are here and here.

Atlas of Inequality

Article, MIT Sloan: How Credit Unions Could Help People Make the Most of Personal Data

Research papers:

Video: Big Data and Social Democracy

MIT Connection Science initiative