Blockchain — the guardian of your personal data

If you’re getting something for free, then the product is you. Unless the product is your personal data that is being stolen from you and then traded behind your back by digital corporations. Here’s a was of protecting yourself from theft and unwarranted use of your personal information.

This spring, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of the U.S. Congress. Over several hours Mark was trying to explain exactly how the personal data of over 87 million Facebook users was used in campaigns for of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and the Brexit vote. This was a turning point, as seemingly everyone started talking about data privacy, with the blockchain technology being at the forefront of these discussions.

What’s wrong?

Facebook is completely free to use, yet the company somehow racks up enormous profits year on year. In 2017 alone, according to the company’s report, they made $40 billion on advertising. Essentially, Facebook and Google provide their services in exchange for the users’ personal data, which they subsequently monetise.

For a long while it seemed that most people are OK with this business model, but as the recent scandal unfolded the general public finally realised that their personal data is not just used for annoying contextual ads. Moreover, the scandal has once again emphasised the complete lack of control over all the information users are basically forced to provide the tech giants with.

It should be noted that personal data isn’t limited to your date of birth and city of residence. Your chat history, financial and medical records, geolocation tags, addresses, search history, your preferences and interests — all of this information is stored on the servers of these corporation, and the list can go on and on. While their engineers do put a lot of effort into protecting their databases, it’s just simply not enough. According to a study conducted by Gemalto, 2 billion 600 million different personal records were compromised in 2017 alone. That’s 82 every single second.

What can blockchain do?

The blockchain technology will enable users to store their personal data on their own devices, having full control over who has access to it so that there’s no need to blindly trust corporations with safekeeping of our data. At the same time, all the data will be further secured with the means of cryptographic encryption. Blockchains are designed in a way that will guarantee a perfect combination of data transparency, immutability and decentralization.

Quite often, the blockchain technology is being touted to save an industry that doesn’t actually need it. In the case of ensuring the security of personal data and the creation of a standardised online ID, the blockchain technology is truly a perfect solution.

The adoption of the blockchain technology is beneficial for all parties. Users’ personal data will be stored exclusively on their devices instead of the remote servers of some third party. Users will be able to control who gets access to their information as well as the level of that access. When we say “control” we actually mean “sell”, because right now that information is being traded by digital corporations with the owners of that data having no idea about it.

Governmental institutions will be able to standardise digital IDs as well as significantly speed up the process of issuing, updating and confiscating them with the use of the blockchain technology. These institutions also require many service and goods providers to comply with KYC procedures. This means that their clients need to confirm their identity, mostly by submitting specific documents. For instance, many services require their users to provide a copy of their passport along with a selfie with the original document.

All the necessary standardised digital documents can be stored on the blockchain, which will significantly speed up the verification process, allowing customers and partners to go through the KYC procedure almost instantly. IBM is actually working on a solution that should enable users to do just that. It’s called the Trusted Identity and it’s being developed in partnerships with the Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Moreover, a non-profit organisation ID2020 in collaborations with the world governments and monsters such as Microsoft, Accenture, Hyperledger, UNICC and Mercy Corps is actively developing a blockchain-based online ID. The alliance is trying to help approximately 1.2 billion people living without any documents that could confirm their existence. Just because they don’t have the papers, millions of refugees, mostly women and children, can’t get medical treatment or any assistance from governments, let alone get an education, open a bank account or vote.

According to Alex Simons, Vice President of Program Management at Microsoft’s Identity Division, the entire population needs a digital ID that is fully controlled by each individual user an is capable of storing all the elements of our digital identity privately and securely. At this point, there’s no better suited technology for this that the blockchain.

There are of course a lot of smaller startups that are working on less global solutions. For instance, the SecureKey, founded back in 2008 and built on the IBM blockchain, allows users to securely store their passport data to confirm their identity to governments, banks and service providers. Their implementation of the blockchain technology gives users full control over their data, avoiding the formation of centralized honeypots that are highly susceptible to hacker attacks.

Sovrin Foundation took a different path. The startup enables users to create their personal IDs that can include anything from a plane ticket to a driver’s licence. This is basically an additional layer of protection between an individual and the rest of the Internet. Naturally, it’s built on the blockchain.

Is mass adoption imminent?

Despite the obvious advantages of utilising the blockchain technology to solve all the problems of online identification it’s far too early to seriously talk about its mass adoption.

Governments and banks are not just the issuers of documents, they’re also are extremely centralized organisations. It’s very unlikely that they’ll even considering switching to a fully decentralized system. This will probably take decades of lobbying and strategic agreements. Still, it should be noted that all the startups and organisations mentioned in this article have been actively and rather successfully working towards that.

The most important and complicated problem that has to be solved is how will it scale. Despite all the constant leaks and hackings of databases all around the world, the question whether people are actually willing to spend their time, energy and money to study and transition to the new standard still remains open. At the moment, it seems that most people are fine with the using their personal information as payment to be able to access Google’s and Facebook’s services.

Any kind of active fight against the data leaks is currently mostly led by small, un-unified startups that compete with each other. We can already put all of our data into an app that works like a password manager and get control over our information. Still, all such projects are currently integrated with an insignificant number of vendors. Unfortunately, the situation will not change until people stop thinking of the illegal trade of their personal information as something normal and acceptable.

Data protection on the blockchain is essential: we don’t want our personal information being used for political purposes, we don’t want to have to trust corporations and their servers with our banking and medical records. We want all of our data to be stored on our personal devices. We want to be able to choose what we share and who we share it with. We want to take back control of our personal data.