Decentralization for people and privacy

The GAFAMs have taken over the entire Internet, turning the digital sphere into a hyper-centralized network.

It’s highly problematic for the global economy as it creates unprecedented monopolies and harms privacy and security.

Centralized systems vs. DApps

Many developers are convinced it’s the future of software. DApps (Decentralised Applications) are trendy these days. These new apps have no central authority and never go offline.

Indeed, decentralized systems are said to be more resilient and scalable than centralized systems. A DApp is run by an extensive range of devices at any time, so the service would only fail if all devices crash, which is very unlikely.

In contrast, Facebook, one of the most widely used centralized apps, crashed and went offline recently, affecting all users until the fix.

Bitcoin is technically the first DApp that enabled decentralized transactions between users, but DApps have been brought to light by Ethereum, with fancy applications such as Golem, Melonport, or Augur.

DApps do not need the users’ real-world identity, and no man in the middle or central authority can suspend the user’s transactions. These apps are not magic and have security and privacy issues, but we’ll discuss them later.

What’s the problem with the centralized Internet?

All users’ data, including highly confidential information, are aggregated in the same pipes, making data leaks devastating. Centralized apps collect nothing less than the places you go (IRL), the websites you visit, the applications you use, or even your health and financial status.

Social networks have exposed their users’ data (e.g., Facebook Graph API) for years. Friends, acquaintances, companies, and even sometimes anonymous users could track users, knowing what they like, who they go with, where they live, and many more information. The situation has improved with the GDPR, but many issues remain.

It’s not uncommon for some people to raise eyebrows at this moment, saying things like “Do you watch dystopian movies?” or “It’s not that bad to be tracked.” IMHO, that’s because they only see the immediate benefits.

Ironically, the same people understand what’s at stake when they get exposed to threat actors. With the covid pandemic, people are forced to do most of their operations online, which might aggravate the risk dramatically.

Massive data breaches have revealed that centralized platforms such as Facebook only care about innovation and ultimately money, sometimes skipping critical security measures for more convenience and profits and sharing confidential data with various third-party companies.

Facial recognition on profile pictures and videos

It’s not always clear how big corporations join the dots to accurately infer the most intimate parts of people, such as their personality, IQ, sexual orientation, or political views.

Well, one of the most critical data could be the profile picture. Some robust models can infer the most personal traits of your personality from a simple image or a video. You might be satisfied by your outfit, the way you smile, or the beauty of your skin, but algorithms go way beyond what is observable in the data.

The face reveals basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, or fear and introvert and extrovert personalities. Microexpressions go way beyond and reveal internal reactions that cannot be controlled, as it’s subconscious. Algorithms are more efficient in detecting these expressions than the best behavioral psychiatrists.

Studies have shown that these predictive models are more accurate in inferring your intimate psychology than your friends and coworkers.

Source: talks at Google

It likely benefits marketers and advertisers, but employers or public services could do the same tomorrow. Big companies and startups already use AI and neuroscience games in their hiring process (e.g., Unilever, Amazon).

What could the blockchain do about it?

So the most confidential and intimate data end up in the same central pipes. That’s scary, and it’s the current state of the digital world. However, there are alternatives such as the blockchain, which is probably the future of data storage and sharing, ensuring better security and transparency:

  • you eliminate the risk of a single point of failure
  • it’s more secure (e.g., better cryptography and hashing, anonymous public keys instead of passwords)
  • users have full control of their transactions
  • data consistency is improved

A blockchain is a distributed public database that works as a peer-to-peer (p2p) network. Instead of using real addresses, the blockchain use one-time addresses for each transaction. Each block is attached to the previous block, making a continuous chain. All users help supply the necessary storage and processing power.

This model appears more secure than the current centralized Internet, which processes information even in plain text at some steps. Theoretically, a hacker would need to decrypt all blocks connecting the chain to read the entire record.

One of the most significant obstacles to blockchains is not necessarily technical. Since the beginning of bitcoin, blockchains have been attacked by hackers, sometimes stealing the equivalent of millions of dollars in cryptocurrencies, and the very nature of the blockchain does not allow a central authority such as the government to regulate transactions. Indeed, most people do not seem to trust those new platforms yet.

I don’t think it’s a strong argument, though, as hackers hack pretty much everything they can, and governments are not the best at securing data. However, the main problem could be shifting the responsibility to the end-users. You need to be particularly aware of the technology’s risks, and most current solutions are neither user-friendly nor developer-friendly.

As a result, and it’s a bit paradoxical, many users end up using central services built on top of the blockchain to be actually able to use it, which brings back all the inconvenience of centralized systems.

Why not simply unplug big platforms?

There would be many trade-offs for sure. The GAFAMs have created daily services people won’t quit soon. Many privacy issues remain unsolved because the feature cannot work without sharing confidential information.

For example, Google Maps cannot work without highly confidential data such as users’ location. Of course, it does not mean they should do whatever they want with the data, and the GDPR has imposed stricter conditions, but the fact it needs location data.

The GAFAMs dominate the digital landscape. Everything from the economic model to the core functioning is based on the centralized Internet.

Wrapping up

The current centralized Internet is broken. We need decentralized and distributed systems such as the blockchain, but it does not come without security issues and privacy questions.

See Also