Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower of Cambridge Analytica, stated his former company held an “arsenal of weapons,” for which Facebook user data was the uranium. Lawmakers in the US and UK have begun investigating Cambridge Analytica and the SCL Group for exploiting the designs of Facebook’s database of personal information. This is only the latest instance in which our digital troves of identity have been used to activate fear and sow division.
As recent elections around the world have shown, information warfare is very effective. Our data and personal information has long been a product sold by tech giants, much before psychographic data could be compiled to tilt elections.
The problem? Our digital identity is not our own. As a result, we are vulnerable to the machinations of the owners. To move forward with a fix, we must first look back: How did we get here?
The World Wide Web of the 1990s was a place where we took our books, our research, and our lives online for easy retrieval: encyclopedias, medical records, and entire libraries. Slowly, Internet browsers improved, and we developed from the “Read Web” to the “Read-Write Web.”
First blogging exploded, then social networks. Posting, upvoting, hearting, pinning, tweeting, liking, commenting, instagramming, and clapping all joined the lexicon of internet interaction. Facebook became a hallmark company of this ‘read-write’ internet, called Web 2.0, where users became creators of trillions of rows of data by literally telling the company what they ‘liked.” Quietly — almost imperceptibly — as the read-write web grew, users lost control of their digital identity.
Ethereum inventor Vitalik Buterin said it best when asked about the relationships between users and free online platforms. “You are not the customer…therefore, you are the product.”
While regulators in the US and the EU are considering legislative action to protect consumers from exploitative data vaults, the blockchain industry aims to evolve the paradigm of the legacy, intermediated Web. Blockchain networks hypothesize a solution to data vulnerability through realignment of incentives of users and platforms. Advances in decentralized software, cryptography, and new incentivization systems usher in a new vision for the internet: Web 3.0.
Otherwise known as the ‘unmediated Read-Write web’, Web 3.0 represents a new way of organizing internet data. On blockchain networks like Ethereum, user data is owned by users and permissioned to platforms who hope to provide value. The new paradigm employs a decentralized computer network as the backend to applications, the figurative engine underneath the hood. No single entity controls your access to the information. Ethereum is being used for decentralized application logic today, and other protocols are burgeoning for decentralized storage, bandwidth and heavy compute.
Decentralized applications (dApps), like Gitcoin and Bounties Network, are built on top of Ethereum’s infrastructure. These applications built platforms with a symbiotic user relationship. Identity ownership remains with the user, primarily via their MetaMask account. In some instances, tokens are issued to users to formally align their incentives with the platform.
The ‘smart contracts’ between dApps and their participants are transparent – enforced on Ethereum’s blockchain in open source code. In this new paradigm, a self-sovereign identity system (see uPort ) can give you access to your entire digital identity. “Pushing” your data to trusted sources could become the norm, instead of “pulling” your information from the platforms who own it today.
Many Web 2.0 platforms began with good intentions and continue to serve a large public good. But the latest Facebook scandal has made us all more aware of our Faustian bargain with these networks: our data for your free platform. As the internet is currently designed, Cambridge Analytica won’t be the last instance where our data can be used against us. As wise investor Charlie Munger once said, “Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome.”
It’s naive to assume “information militarization” will not continue to be a part of our lives. However, as the protocols of Web 3.0 continue to be built, we are given a choice for a new internet framework that gives creators of information more power over those who seek to influence us.
Andrew Keys is a co-founder of ConsenSys Capital, ConsenSys’ financial services constellation of companies, including ConsenSys Capital Asset Management, ConsenSys Ventures, and Token Foundry. Previously, Andrew ran ConsenSys’ global business development from inception of the company, co-founded ConsenSys Enterprise, co-created the first Ethereum Blockchain-as-a-Service offering with Microsoft , and began the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. Andrew comes to ConsenSys with capital markets, healthcare, technology and entrepreneurial experience. Previously, Andrew worked for UBS investment bank in equities analysis. Later, he was involved within multiple hedge funds and broker dealers in alternative asset investing. After, he co-founded a healthcare revenue cycle management company where he learned about Bitcoin and eventually Ethereum. Andrew graduated from Loyola University in Maryland and University of Auckland with degrees in economics and international finance. He has written previously about blockchain technology.