Reclaiming Data Ownership in a New Digital Landscape

More than 300 million people use Quora, more than one billion people use Google, and more than two billion people use Facebook. What do these multi-billion dollar corporations have in common? Each one has suffered at least one massive data breaches as a result of malicious third parties looking to exploit vulnerabilities in the system. It’s a trend indicative of a persistent stain in the modern digital landscape.

Every day, new users upload their most personal information to websites and mobile apps, only to be surprised when they succumb to data breaches at the hands of companies looking to profit from their data. It’s an unfortunate truth: Our data has now become an openly-shared commodity, putting one of our most valuable resources at great risk. In 2018 alone, tens of millions of records of personal information were exposed, according to the latest data from the Identity Theft Resource Center. While a concerted focus on cybersecurity might be a step in the right direction, ultimately it’s not the process that must change; it’s the network.

Realizations like these are certainly troubling, but what’s perhaps a harder pill to swallow is the realization that companies have greater control over our personal data than we might think. Our online identities are de facto owned by the companies whose ads we watch, links we click, and the sites we visit. All of this information is recorded, creating a digital profile that tailors our user experience with marketing tools to increase profits — none of which we will ever see. Even if a company paid users per month for their data, it would still be making far more than its customers in revenue. And to make matters worse, we’d still have no idea where our data is going, or to whom it’s being sent.

It’s high time we reclaim ownership of our data. Using blockchain technology, an immutable ledger of information supporting cryptocurrency transactions, we can finally make this dream a reality. Unlike traditional models, data on the blockchain is decentralized, not constrained to servers, so the network “owns” it rather than one central entity. If an individual, for instance, tried to share information stored with a separate third party, that transaction would be immediately recorded on a verifiable ledger, alerting the entire community of the details of the transfer. Imagine blockchain’s potential implications for Google’s recent data breach: In early 2018, Google began conducting a security audit of all of the third-party app developers that could access its network and discovered that its system had been vulnerable to exploitation for more than three years. Using blockchain, audits like this would happen in real time, allowing users to gain an immediate account of where their information is being sent.

More importantly, this technology would — for the first time ever — place the power of data ownership back into the hands of the consumer, providing users with the freedom to manage and share their data on their own terms. Blockchain-based services can facilitate data transfers between buyers and sellers on a transparent exchange, effectively cutting out the middleman and ensuring that each individual is adequately compensated. Throughout the process, parties have complete visibility over how, when, and why their data is sold or shared. No longer will companies be able to conduct behind-the-scenes transactions without your consent, because you will be able to dictate who has access at any given time.

It’s a reality that many blockchain companies are already actively working toward, creating marketplaces that allow individuals to make a profit off of their location services, advertising analytics, and social media interactions — all on an anonymous and transparent exchange. Users simply need to sign up, integrate their online profiles and social media accounts, and select the terms by which they intend to sell their data. Once complete, third parties can interact freely with users to gain valuable insights in a trusted and secure environment.

The internet as we know it must change. In the not so distant future, I believe that blockchain will foster the creation of exciting new platforms with seamless information sharing. The difference is that you’ll be in control: You pick the ads, you tailor the content, and you’ll be in the driver’s seat. As the general public grows increasingly frustrated with the status quo, the age of ambiguity and misinformation in the modern digital landscape will soon be a thing of the past. The question remains: Why should we trust companies to protect our personal data if we can do it ourselves?

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