November 13, 2017
In our hyperconnected world, the line between public and private keeps fading. We try to protect what we feel is ‘ours’. The picture of Mark Zuckerberg, his laptop camera’s covered with duct tape in the background, illustrates the issue perfectly. How will we define privacy in a new era? And how do we stop consumers from agreeing to share their personal information by blindly clicking ‘I accept’?
We have three main players when it comes down to privacy and personal data – the first being the competitive, innovative industry. They lead a continuous search to find new ways to manage personal data, from music playlists to genome sequencing. Of course, as it happens with everything that’s fast and new, companies have mishandled their data. More than once, this lead to huge data breaches (at Adobe, LinkedIn, Sony, Yahoo and Equifax). These breaches have affected hundreds of millions of people and it is impossible to predict what problems future breaches might present.
A second player in personal data is the consumer, who makes decisions based on user friendliness on the one hand and mistrust of the industry on the other. As consumers, we welcome good quality content when it comes free. Usability usually triumphs having underlying mechanisms explained to us. We do not need to understand it – it just needs to work. This makes it harder to get a grip on how our personal data is being gathered, exchanged and processed. It is even harder to recognize when applications are exploiting our personal data or infringe our privacy rights.
The third and last player in personal data is the government. They need to stand their ground while balancing the pressure of increased supervision on citizens and enforcing stricter privacy rules to prevent abuse and improve the relation between consumer and industry.
Given the perspectives of these three players, we might wonder if there is no better way to handle privacy and personal data. If technology is the biggest cause of the problem, could it also be part of the solution?
Technology versus society
To answer that question, we need to establish what privacy means. In the past, we described privacy as an imaginary line between what is public (state and society) and private (personal and family). This line was never unambiguous. It shifted along with every change within society. Nowadays, thanks to all the social networks, it is almost universally accepted that we share and keep a substantial part of our personal life online.
We might conclude that the beforementioned imaginary privacy line is mostly based on social consensus; what people feel is acceptable to share and how much we think we are in control of what goes public. This also means we cannot leave it to technology to decide what is acceptable. It is a decision for society, our culture and our educational system. When do we allow our personal data to be used? By whom? How? And for what purpose? The role of technology should be to give each individual the reigns in handling those permissions.
This is where Blockchain comes in.
Blockchain in service of privacy
The technology of blockchain is a hot topic. For every problem, we look at blockchain to provide a solution. Many applications are dubious at best, but there is no question that blockchain technology is the start of something big, comparable to when the internet made its entrance to the world.
Blockchain in a nutshell
Blockchain once started as the transactions data mechanism behind Bitcoin (and many other crypto currencies thereafter). Partly due to the development of Ethereum, it became a more universal and more decentralized processing platform.
Theoretically, Blockchain is a combination of decentralized and distributed data storage and processing mechanisms. Encryption protects the data against misuse and forgery. As a concept, it might not be very sensational. What makes it interesting, it the absence of one central authority. It is based on a limitless network, supported by the initiatives of its users.
The blockchain concept is that the distributed ledger is not physically owned by anyone. Everyone across the globe can have access, and strong encryptions ensure data protection.
Tim Geenen, CEO & Founder of Faktor, also sees the added value of blockchain. His startup is collaborating with Levi9 to create innovations to help publishers. Blockchain could offer the perfect solution to transparently retaining consumer permissions.
Within this blockchain solution, no personal consumer data is being saved. Instead, a digitally signed document states by whom, for what purpose and in what situation the personal data can be used. The personal data mentioned in that document could be anything from what websites the consumer has visited, what articles have been read to his or her age, gender, and preferences for brands, services and products. Advertisers can serve consumers with more relevant ads, and publishers have a better way of being compensated for the content they create.
All given information can only be used by an authorized party, within the given period and exclusively for the purposes stated in the document. Making its entrance May 25th of 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation law (GDPR) allows consumers to review, edit and remove their own personal data. For the first time, this will also include managing cookies, processing IP addresses and ‘device identifiers’. In this scenario, everybody wins.
Consumer versus commerce
In the before mentioned scenario, the consumer keeps the reigns where it concerns his or her own personal data; they decide which data is private and which data can be used. Within the blockchain, recent permissions can be withdrawn or updated. This gives consumers the chance to change their mind, in such cases that cultural norms shift or when their personal views do.
The industry will have an easier way to bring the consumer closer, for example when the consumer allows the industry to use his or her personal data within the field of pre-defined authorities and organizations. Being based on the direct consent of a consumer, there is a high correlation between the consumer and the provided data.
Within blockchain, automatic checks can be done on previously given and withdrawn permissions. This makes for a more efficient compliance and enforcement of data protection by regulatory authorities and governments.
Blockchain being available globally wipes out any excuse for processing data when someone has not given his or her explicit consent to do so. Now, it is up to us to build a society where everyone respects privacy. Technology can help us create a more transparent world.
It is only human to change your mind, so let us make sure that we both have and use the tools to be able to do so. In any case: it is good to consider all this before we carelessly click ‘I accept’.