The flexibility of blockchain infrastructures has captivated innovators, entrepreneurs and developers across a number of verticals (more so than ever in the past year). Many are beginning to truly appreciate the properties that make distributed ledger technologies so valuable, notably where data security is concerned.
Blockchains are perhaps best described, in simple terms, as append-only databases that are controlled by a consensus mechanism made up of numerous participants (without a hierarchy or centralized overseer). Compared to a traditional database, this means that there is no central point of failure for an attacker to target. The participants in question will each maintain a copy of this ledger, synchronising it with that of their peers when a ‘block’ (chunk of data) is added to the network.
This may not seem particularly exciting at first glance, but it is, in fact, a very powerful tool — each block added to the ledger is cryptographically linked to the prior one, meaning that any attempt to alter the information will be automatically rejected by the rest of the participants. As such, blockchains are often touted as being immutable and tamper-proof.
The security of such networks stems from this structure, the topology at the peer-to-peer level and the use of robust cryptography (private/public keypairs) to ensure that only the individual uploading data can decrypt it or demonstrate ownership.
Towards Medical Applications
Home genetic testing has been garnering a lot of attention from consumers recently as services like Ancestry or 23AndMe have cropped up to provide insights into the health of the user — at the cost, of course, of the sharing of genomic data.
It’s hard to imagine a source of data more personal to an individual than their genetic information. It stands to reason that it’s crucial that said data is kept both secure and private — easier said than done in an age of digitisation of information, home DNA testing kits and rampant data breaches.
Most companies go to lengths to anonymize your data before sharing it, and to keep it secure. But sharing this type of sensitive personal information comes with an inherent risk. Consumer genetic testing firms are not typically bound by HIPAA, which means the flow of personal information is completely unregulated. And the more places data flows, the more chances there are for it to leak.
Blockchain technology may initially seem ideally suited to these ends, though it’s just a partial solution — one of the trade-offs of an immutable distributed ledger is that its throughput is somewhat lacking (remember that every participant must record every interaction), and storing even small amounts of data is an expensive and time-consuming task.
Evidently, in designing a platform for mass adoption, a sort of hybridised approach is best. Leveraging the features of blockchain technology and combining it with more scalable storage mediums, vastly superior alternatives to the existing ‘data silo’ phenomenon can be built. With such alternatives, secure repositories of data that are controlled entirely by the individual are anchored in the blockchain, which provides an unalterable record of the interactions occurring across the network.
Third-party custodians and data security are not concepts that go hand-in-hand. We’ve seen the catastrophic consequences that breaches like that of Equifax and Facebook can have on the lives of their victims. It’s not something that can be allowed to continue in transitioning masses of genetic information into the digital realm. DNA is not as easily changed as a username/password.
With a tech stack built on top of a blockchain, we can reverse some of the damaging patterns that have emerged as a result of a trust-heavy data ecosystem, putting individuals wholly back in control of information that belongs to them in the first place. Though the concept of an entirely ‘self-sovereign identity’ has existed for a couple of decades now, we’re finally beginning to perfect the technologies that would make truly private and secure interactions in the digital space possible.
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