Lead Image Courtesy of Aditya Joshi on unsplash.com
The influence that centralized online platforms can wield based on their access to users' personal information cannot be overstated. Any free platform needs to profit off its users in some way, but the amount of power that these companies have is difficult to fathom. This is information that, if misused, can subject users to scams, spread misinformation, determine a political party's mandate, and even influence elections. It's a question that has been asked many times before but how much of a danger to the functioning of our society is the fact that a single company, whether they behave responsibly or not, has this ability?
Facebook in particular has been able to amass an incredible amount of knowledge concerning huge swathes of the population. An incredible 2.7 billion people access Facebook-owned products (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp) daily.
The most obvious means that Facebook has of collecting data is through data that users readily make available. This in and of itself is enough to learn huge amounts about users with forms of engagement such as likes of other pages or posts, comments, messages, even time spent on Facebook, and whether you watch a video with the sound on or off enough to create a comprehensive profile. It's believed that with access to just 300 likes, Facebook can draw up a profile of a person as detailed as their own spouse could.
However, in addition to that, Facebook is also collecting biometric data from users' phones. Facebook facial recognition AI system DeepFace is able to recognize individuals and let users know when a photo of them has surfaced online. Facebook also collects information from any website that has installed Facebook Pixel. This means that Facebook even has access to people's behavioral patterns when they're on sites other than Facebook.
Facebook is also not shy about pushing the limits of the law to collect the information they want. This was demonstrated recently when the German authorities had to issue an injunction to prevent Facebook from processing personal data from WhatsApp.
All of this data collection is culminating in a series of scandals surrounding Facebook concerning the damage it does to society. There are reports of misinformation spread by Eastern European troll farms reaching 140 million people because Facebook's recommendation engine served it to them, thousands of fake accounts participating in a variety of scams, and even Facebook seeking to improve its reputation by promoting pro-Facebook stories. This follows the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, where it was suggested that information garnered from Facebook was used to manipulate the American election.
As outlined by the University of Saskatchewan, the ability of blockchain to track information distribution could revolutionize the industry. Blockchain can verifiably show what information is shared by a user, with whom it's shared, when, and by what means. The research in the report is modeled on a travel booking platform but it demonstrates blockchain's ability to allow users to share data without losing control or ownership of it. This system even allows users to receive rewards for sharing their data with others depending on their privacy preference.
Not only does it allow its users to benefit from their own personal data, but it also creates more transparency in regards to who is collecting this information. As more regulations come into effect, controlling the amount of information collected, this transparency could be crucial to preventing big tech firms from monopolizing millions of people's private information.
The system proposed in this paper may seem a long way off but there are blockchain projects that already utilize very similar methods to bring value to their users. Synesis One, for example, develops advanced AI, based on how players across the world participate in a word game hosted on the site.
NFTs of the 10,000 most popular words are minted and can be staked by their holders. Each time one of the words is used within the word game the holder of that NFT will be rewarded. In addition to that, any user playing the game will also be able to earn as they play. Value is created for this ecosystem because of the advanced datasets created as players play. The datasets created are based on users' behavioral patterns and can then be bought by tech firms to train AI in human behavior. In effect, this project is giving users access to the value generated from information regarding their own behavior.
HLTH Network is another project which utilises NFTs in a very similar way. The network is built around the healthcare industry but one of their tools in particular concerns data collection. Their NFT marketplace allows users to mint NFTs with information about their own genome. Users can profit from proceeds from any NFT sales while the genetic information gathered can be used in an anonymous way by medical research labs to develop effective countermeasures against disease. Studying the human genome helps the medical community detect, understand, treat, and prevent disease. Users can also allocate money from their sales to charities and other research programs. The significant thing about this project is that it shows how users can monetize and control their own genetic data.
The problems associated with huge tech firms controlling our information are not going to go away until an entirely new set of principles dictates how online platforms behave. The most obvious solution is stringent regulations but blockchain offers an alternative that allows a global network to benefit.
These projects only represent the start of what blockchain can do to democratize data collection. If we as a global population are to truly take back control of our own private information, protocols like these need to be integrated into the social media platforms that have access to all other information. However, one thing these projects do is demonstrate the potential that blockchain has to revolutionize data collection. This is just the beginning and the technology being developed here could form the bedrock of a fairer internet.
Disclaimer: The author holds tokens in the above-mentioned companies. The opinions in this article belong to the author alone and should not be considered investment advice.