By Chris Tse, Founding Director, Cardstack
Imagine you let a friend borrow your house key. Immediately, they start inviting over strangers, reading your mail, and setting up surveillance cameras. You would want them to leave.
We should feel similarly about intrusions by today’s apps. To join a centralized platform or connect to web services, users are often required to hand over their “keys” in the form of hazy blanket agreements that let others do just about anything with their data. No matter how much tech firms claim otherwise, this is important to their business model.
Data is incredibly valuable, and centralized tech giants profit by forcing us to use platforms where they have monopolized the data supply chain — complete with the collection, aggregation, ownership, and monetization of our information.
We must share data to do anything online. The problem is that we have almost no way of knowing what happens to that data afterwards. As more of our lives becomes datafied, repackaged, and shared, we need the power to give or take away our consent at different points in this supply chain.
A person’s consent is only meaningful when they are fully informed, have real alternatives, and are able to revoke their consent at any time. But the more the internet is dominated by centralized digital superpowers like Facebook or Google, the less control we have over their access to our digital lives.
A lot of talk has been focused around creating laws that will rein in Silicon Valley. However, we should also consider the emerging decentralized internet — with blockchain as a key piece of its technology stack — as a powerful emerging alternative to more traditional Silicon Valley-style tech strategies.
A blockchain is a sequential, decentralized, and immutable database. Upon agreement from all participants in the network, blockchain records are attached to one another chronologically and cannot be edited once confirmed. This makes blockchain a very reliable and transparent record of the transactions in a network or supply chain.
Here’s the exciting part: Instead of trusting tech giants to control our data, we can use blockchain to keep track of our data as it goes out into the world, and manage the rules around how it changes hands.
The idea isn’t to put our personal data onto the blockchain. Rather, a blockchain can hold the key that unlocks your data, a list of those who can use that key, and/or a log of how that key is used — without ever revealing the actual data, which would be encrypted and stored somewhere else.The blockchain proves that you are the sole owner of your data, no matter where it moves around the internet. And as the owner, you can choose who gets access at each step. Recorded on the blockchain, your decisions are uncontestable.
This technology can also help reveal who’s trustworthy and who’s not. By tracking transaction history, blockchain offers useful insights into other parties’ past behavior, meaning that you would be able to make informed decisions about who gets access to your data.
However, for true consent to exist, you must have viable alternatives to choose from. And when you are trapped on platforms controlled by tech giants, you must rely on their computers to store, process, and transmit your raw data — which leaves the security of your information at their mercy.
Blockchain offers a decentralized approach to data processing that can cut out these centralized middlemen. Using principles similar to bitcoin mining — in which distributed nodes collect fees to confirm transactions — we can create a decentralized network of computers that shares the work of data processing.
This can even be paired with a decentralized file storage system that would allow your files to be stored in pieces on multiple machines, rather than on one vulnerable server. These methods mean that your data will never be monopolized by one party.
We already have what we need to build these tools. But to deliver them to end users, we must make sure they are easy to use. That means we can’t decentralize everything instantly and expect everyone to get on board. We have to build on-ramps for people to gradually change their workflows, and orchestrate software that can allow for the centralized and decentralized Internet to coexist.
Creating the underlying technology is just the first step. In the long run, we need to make it intuitive — and create a cultural shift — to help people take back control of their digital lives.