Privacy for sale

Can blockchain protect privacy in a pandemic?

Dr. Steven Waterhouse
© Shutterstock / Lightspring

Privacy is a human right. With blockchain technology, a true decentralized process governs actions such as uploading or deleting data, preventing the information from being controlled by specific entities and their opaque practices.

People are suddenly far more aware of privacy issues due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With much of the world forced to stay at home, millions of people started using Zoom for online meetings only to find out the company did not live up to its promises of privacy. While discussing business for work or chatting with friends and relatives, people in fact had little protection and their data could be surreptitiously funneled to Facebook for ad targeting. Reports have also emerged that half a million Zoom credentials are up for sale on the dark web for less than a penny each.

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Invasive technology has also been applied to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Israel enacted legislation to permit its spies to trace citizens’ movements via their phones if they were suspected of being infected. Apple and Google have launched their own phone-tracing initiative locating infected people and those they have been close to in a new form of corporate surveillance. Despite the tech giants’ claims that they don’t keep the data they collect, most analyses have concluded that the public simply has to put their trust in Apple and Google. Unfortunately, trusting big corporations with our data rarely ends well. Too often it ends in misuse or hacks.

While it is imperative to slow the spread of the virus and use the best technology has to offer to do so, we should ask how much privacy we will sacrifice in the name of beating Covid. And we should look to develop alternatives that can achieve the twin goals of controlling the spread of the virus and protecting our privacy.

An area to look for answers is blockchain, with its combination of encryption and decentralization that puts data at less risk of abuse. Blockchain’s essence as a peer-to-peer transfer of value means it is a technology that effectively cuts out the middleman. That is, it removes the point of vulnerability where data can be stolen or sold or used to manipulate us. Blockchain affords data sovereignty that allows individuals to choose what data to share, and importantly with whom. Ironically, Zoom tripped up because it exaggerated its claims of end-to-end encryption, and Apple and Google touted their solution as “decentralized” even though in the end the two corporations apparently have access to the massive amounts of data that will be collected.

Blockchain remains a nascent technology and is not a panacea. But consumers must ask how much control they have over their own data — and how much they should have. With blockchain technology, a true decentralized process governs actions such as uploading or deleting data, preventing the information from being controlled by specific entities and their opaque practices. Precisely because the data can be audited transparently on a blockchain, the individual who has provided the information can know if their data has been used in the way they authorized.

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Privacy is a Human Right

Even before the world was turned upside down by the coronavirus, ordinary people were nervous about privacy. In surveys, 91% of Americans say they feel they’ve lost control of personal information collection and usage; more than 80% lack confidence their online information will remain private and secure; and 74% say it’s very important to be in control of who has information about them.

The ubiquitous monitoring of individuals delivers multi-billion dollar profits to corporations in a business model known as “surveillance capitalism.” Google, Facebook and Amazon, for example, suck up massive amounts of data on their users and sell this data to advertisers. The picture that emerges from the individual data points helps other businesses to target their ads at the people they believe are their most likely customers.

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The human rights group Amnesty International argues in a report that “the insidious control of our digital lives undermines the very essence of privacy and is one of the defining human rights challenges of our era.”

Now more than ever, people are aware how important it is to wash your hands with soap to reduce the risk of infection. People must also learn to practice data hygiene to lower the risk of data abuse. Blockchain may well be the hand sanitizer our data needs.


Dr. Steven Waterhouse

Dr. Steven Waterhouse (Seven) is the CEO and Co-founder of Orchid. Founded in 2017, Orchid is a peer-to-peer, incentivized privacy network designed to keep the Internet open and accessible, regardless of geographic location. Waterhouse previously served as a partner at blockchain-focused venture Pantera Capital from its inception in 2013 through July 2016. Here, he recognized the value of data privacy, investing in projects such as Brave and Zcash at the seed stage.

Waterhouse also worked at Fortress Investment Group, where he founded the Digital Currency Fund with Mike Novogratz and Pete Briger. Before this, Waterhouse was a Co-founder and CTO of RPX (Nasdaq: RPXC) and served as Director of the Honeycomb product group at Sun Microsystems, one of the first computer and software technology companies to evolve during the dot com era. 

Waterhouse holds a PhD in Engineering from the University of Cambridge. He can be found on Twitter here. Follow the Orchid project here.

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