Blockchain Is How We Can Protect Our Privacy in a World of Ubiquitous Surveillance
We’ve seen headlines about blockchain technology adoption and witnessed increased cryptocurrency use, but the general public still lacks a basic understanding of what blockchain is and how it works.
Simply put, a blockchain is a decentralized ledger of information. Any information recorded is updated and verified on a global level where anyone can participate, monitor for “bad actors” and prevent interference by large entities (such as oppressive regimes and monolithic companies).
Public institutions and private enterprises recently have converged to discreetly build massive surveillance infrastructures. Look no further than Amazon, Facebook and the increasingly popular WeChat -- an all-in-one Chinese version of Whatsapp -- to find breeding grounds for information misuse. Future generations risk unknowingly (but autonomously) helping diminish their own rights to privacy and data protection.
Related: 7 Surprising Places Hackers Hide
There is some good news: A solution to this growing trend of third-party interference is within our reach. Blockchain technology is armed to curb infringements upon citizens' rights. Here are three examples of blockchain's potential to affect our approach to censorship, privacy and even individualize the control of wealth.
Blockchain technology debuted at a time when the general public is increasingly dependent on social media and the instant gratification the internet provides. As reliance on these platforms has grown, privacy has become less of an intentional individual priority. It's more of an option for institutions to abide by. This leaves citizens susceptible to invasions of privacy and unintended censorship.
Privacy commonly is offered as a “value-add” feature for most messaging services, including Whatsapp, Signal, Telegram and Facebook Messenger. But these globally recognized systems still rely on centralized components to function -- for example, cloud services and internet service providers. As a result, powerful forces opposed to truly private communication have the capacity to not only scrape conversational data on an industrial scale but to completely shut down peer-to-peer communication systems on a whim.
Earlier this year, the Turkish government shut down ProtonMail to strengthen its hold over internet access nationwide. ProtonMail allows for end-to-end encryptions and automatically destroys emails after transmission. Those features made it the application of choice for journalists and dissidents alike. Turkey, the world’s biggest jailer of journalists since early 2016, blocked the secure email service along with 20 VPNs, removing citizens' means to circumvent restrictions and access banned sites. Government officials did so strictly to censor the flow of information coming in to and flowing out from the country.
Censorship-proof applications currently being built using blockchain technology would strip governments' ability to block encrypted apps. Barring the removal or outright disabling of electronic devices in general, it's impossible to tamper with or block platforms built on decentralized information sources.
Storing and uploading private data such as bank information, home addresses and Social Security numbers has become the norm. This continually exposes an individual's sensitive and private data to vulnerabilities. It makes them susceptible to breaches not only by hackers but also by platforms that abuse loopholes in privacy agreements to access and sell personal data to enemy governments or third parties. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed the firm improperly obtained personal data on over 80 million users on Facebook. In truth, data analytics companies have been applying this same methodology for many years, only often with permission. Scraping and selling user data remains the business model that large tech companies depend on to grow and thrive.
With blockchain technology, citizens would have the ability to store private information in a secure, decentralized ledger. Citizens would maintain data ownership, deciding when and where it's shared. This technology could prevent malicious actors and third parties from ever accessing or harvesting personal data without consent. No data, no manipulating or directing unsuspecting users down certain behavioral paths.
Individualizing wealth control.
The state’s clout within a nation’s financial system is historically strong. But as the global economy becomes more interconnected, citizens rapidly are gaining access to new forms of wealth and markets that remain outside the purview of their governments. Autocratic governments have responded by seeking ways to maintain control over an individual's or group’s access to resources.
China’s "social credit" system is the most clear-cut example of the phenomenon. The surveillance program tracks and scores each citizen action as well as interactions among citizens, subsequently using the information to allot each person a credit standing. This affects everything from securing loans to gaining entry to dating sites.
Cryptocurrencies powered by blockchain have the power to flip this trend on its head. They can enable people to participate in an alternative form of finance that isn't subject to judgment by the state. How? By removing the middleman from transactions. Individuals or groups who have been blacklisted by a government or corporation then can do more than amass and spend wealth. They can prosper.
The effect will amplify as more vendors adopt cryptocurrency. Those in positions of power within these systems know alternative-money supplies immediately strip away one of the most powerful tools at their disposal. It’s no surprise that they've made futile attempts to ban crypto exchanges.
Blockchain's rise signals a chance to knock over our current house of cards and begin building again -- this time with a truly privacy-centric foundation. Governments and legacy companies with vested interests are likely to kick, scream and even attempt to block the technology moving forward.
When a blockchain project can support private, decentralized applications with a range of purposes that mirrors human need, we'll usher in a new era of free thought as a new internet emerges.