Online Privacy is Non-existent: Here How Blockchain Could Change That
That personal data is the new goldmine is no longer a secret. It is the fuel that runs multi-billion businesses like Google and Facebook. Our data is being collected every time we sign in, search the web or click on a video and used for targeted ad campaigns among other things.
While tech companies and data brokers make a killing, the real owners of this data do not get any share. Disturbingly, such sensitive information could easily end up in the wrong hands with no way to reclaim it.
As recent data breaches have shown, tech companies cannot guarantee the safety of our data. In the case of Facebook, it willingly handed over personal data to a third party in what has become one of the most prominent instances of privacy violation.
The information was used by Cambridge Analytica to influence the way people voted in the US and elsewhere. This and many cases point to the fact that companies may not have the tools to guarantee the safety of your data. Often times they sell this information to the highest bidder.
So, is it possible to take back control?
Part of the problem is the centralized architecture of the internet. This is for a reason. For a long time, there was simply no other way of doing things.
Companies store information in data centers from where they can be accessed in the most efficient way. There lies the problem; once you surrender your personal details in say a website, you have lost control over how it will be used.
GPDR,a step in the right direction
Recent legislation such as the GDPR act requires companies to take more responsibility for the data they collect inside the European Union. The rules also apply to enterprises established in the EU.
Among other things, it requires that personal data can only be shared with explicit consent. This consent can also be revoked at any time. Violations attract huge fines; as much as 20 million euros or 4% of annual global turnover. While this is a step in the right direction, it is not nearly enough.
Anything digital can be easily replicated. An article like this is read by thousands of readers simultaneously. A digital photo can be copied several times over.
The blockchain solution
So, how do we prevent replication of certain sensitive data? We can get some lessons from bitcoin. This pioneering cryptocurrency solved the problem of double spending, a longstanding problem with electronic cash. Double spending is the fact that electronic money can be spent more than once, rendering it useless.
Blockchain is an open and immutable ledger which for once solved the double spend problem through a process of confirmations. Thus, there is only one true owner of a given coin. The same principle can be extended to data.
Like bitcoin, personal data can similarly be cryptographically signed to one owner. The data can then be spread to several nodes to prevent a single point of failure or stored on protocols such as IPFS or Swarm designed for hypermedia, and then save record hashes in the blockchain. Decentralization, which is basically the storage of data in several locations makes manipulation a herculean task requiring the consensus of 51% of the network.
Another problem however arises. Everyone in the network has a copy of the data even though it is encrypted.
Public and private keys
With blockchain, it is possible to create both a public and a private key. Data can be stored in a private device and only the necessary information shared in the public network.
Public keys can be freely shared providing a way to verify digital signatures. Private keys, on the other hand, are private and can be used to decrypt the content.
In this model, companies will access only limited information e.g. whether certain information is true or false for instance whether you are a citizen of a certain country or not. You do not have to divulge any extra information.
Companies already using the method
Already, BMW is using blockchain to secure customer’s data in a recent partnership with Bloom, a US blockchain startup. The company also says the app will streamline the process of getting a car which it describes as cumbersome in addition to putting customer data at risk.
We can see how blockchain unlocks new opportunities for securing sensitive information. As this model slowly develops, we are likely to see a change in how personal data is handled. It also presents an opportunity for ordinary people to voluntarily sell their data and earn from it.