Tech giants are in the dock, politicians are calling for Mark Zuckerberg’s head, and many Facebook users are so incensed about the misuse of their data that they’re thinking about deleting their accounts – perhaps, some time in the future, for at least a day or two.
Meanwhile, blockchain is being heralded as the technology that could bring an end to the surveillance-for-profit era in which every move we make, every click we take, every befriending, every like, every purchase and every follow is milked for value by big businesses.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. The truth is, one of the biggest strengths of the blockchain has always been its biggest weakness: data stored in a smart contract is available for everyone to view. Yes, the distributed nature of blockchains like Ethereum protects data from being modified via an immutable record of events. It’s a truly beautiful solution. But it’s not the solution to the Facebook confidentiality problem, because anything published on the blockchain can be read by anyone, anywhere. That’s kind of the whole point of it.
A barrier to innovation
This is a major barrier to blockchain’s adoption by many industries in which client confidentiality is non-negotiable (think finance and health, for starters) and rules out thousands of potentially business-changing use cases. This is why really useful, decentralized applications built on Ethereum are so few and far between.
There’s another reason why blockchains like Ethereum can’t solve the Facebook problem. The fees to store data on Ethereum are quite high in order to restrict its use – although after three years, it’s already become an unwieldy size.
So what’s to be done? How can the technology available to us be leveraged enough to bring us out of the dark era of centralized data exploitation?
Despite all its weaknesses, Ethereum is the beginning of the solution. But a new internet technology layer is needed to run on top of it. Then, the decentralized applications of the future – which allow easy, confidential, consensual communication – can be built on this layer.
This new layer can be made up of a combination of blockchain and peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing technology. The blockchain technology ensures that a permanent decentralized record is maintained of when and who you gave consent for having access to your data. P2P file sharing technology ensures the secure storage in that no intermediary needs to hold your data. It’s a whole new solution for privacy and confidentiality.
With this solution, it will always be possible for you to maintain control over who you share your personal data with. Applications built on this protocol will store your personal data only on your device and share with those whom you’ve given consent. There will be no need for intermediaries such as Facebook to hold your data in order for you to interact with friends, families and colleagues. Users could instead post videos and news items to their circle of friends, without handing any information over. Meanwhile, decentralized messaging group apps could be developed in which users hold onto their messages (instead of a central entity like WhatsApp).
New data rights for users
The Facebook scandal has highlighted the sheer volume of personal data we hand over to internet giants and the lack of controls in place for us to do much about it. But a decentralized authorization protocol means owners of a smart contract can dynamically grant or revoke permissions to others so that only those they authorize can access the information and
accordingly execute those smart contracts.
This new protocol could also provide a tamper-proof record showing exactly how your data has changed hands. Suddenly, laws that protect your data rights could be enforced. The development of DApps is still at a very early stage. But by solving traditional blockchain limitations, smart contracts can be designed for far more sophisticated use cases. A combination of on-chain and decentralized off-chain technology is going to pave the way for a new generation of decentralized applications built on a network that supports fast and secure sharing of information in a low-cost open ecosystem.
Exciting opportunities provided by a network like this could include a DApp that allows peer-to-peer sales of digital content (music, videos, eBooks) where artists, producers and authors publish and sell content directly to fans. A decentralized election DApp could feature an automated authorization mechanism to reveal votes after the casting time has expired. Alternatively, a DApp could allow a patient to retain and manage their health records on their own devices, with access granted to medical physicians and third parties when needed.
Blockchain may not be the solution to the data control and confidentiality problem. But it is part of it. With the right technology alongside it, a new era of the internet, characterized by the ownership of personal data, could be upon us.
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