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 ask the question: How did we get here?
Looking back to the 1990s, the World Wide Web 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 transitioned 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.”
Regulators in the US and the EU (through GDPR) are implementing legislative action to protect consumers from exploitative data vaults, as the blockchain industry aims to evolve the paradigm of the legacy, intermediated Web. Blockchain networks hypothesise a solution to data vulnerability through realignment of incentives of users and platforms. Advances in decentralised software, cryptography, and new incentivisation systems are ushering in a new vision for the Internet: Web 3.0.
Also known as the ‘unmediated Read-Write web,’ Web 3.0 represents a new way of organising 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 decentralised computer network as the backend to applications, the figurative engine underneath the hood. No single entity controls your access to the information. The Ethereum blockchain is being used for decentralised application logic today, and other protocols are burgeoning for decentralised storage, bandwidth and heavy computing.
Decentralised applications (dApps), like Gitcoin and Bounties Network, are built on top of Ethereum’s infrastructure. These applications build 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 the Ethereum blockchain in open source code. In this new paradigm, a self-sovereign identity system 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. The way 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 militarisation” 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.
Contributed article by Andrew Keys, Co-founder of ConsenSys Capital