Editors' pickEthereum

Democratizing data

Imagine a company which tracks at least a million cars daily and a company which stores private messages of almost a billion people daily, a company which stores and processes what everyone searches for, another company which reads writings, chats and emails etc. of almost 6.9 million people daily. The companies I’m talking about are Uber, Facebook, Google, Grammarly, respectively. (Yes, George Orwell wrote about something similar, if you’re wondering)

Data is the new oil, an asset class which can be liquidated faster than land, but the funny part is, you don’t liquidate it, tech companies do (See:https://www.theglobalidiot.com/blog/click-onomics-you-are-what-you-click). While several people are daily engaged in land-grabbing lawsuits, they don’t think twice about the fact that they don’t own one of the most important assets they produce, their personal data. This is a problem for the society and for the individual. So, this article is about the ‘how?’, the ‘what?’ and the ‘what next?’.

Centralized data

You need a cab, you request an Uber at your current location and add a drop location; and as soon as you hit “request Uber Go”, this request travels from your device to a server farm(giant computers) owned by Uber. The server farm which was tracking all the drivers who use the Uber driver’s app receives your request, it looks up drivers near your location, while this server farm received many other requests from your very area, machine learning programs on the server crunch a lot of numbers and decide which driver should be assigned to each request. This assignment is sent by this very server farm to the drivers. So, basically, while using the Uber app, you don’t interact with a driver, till the server assigns you one, means you interact with the server and the server interacts with the driver. Everything is processed and routed by the same set of servers accessed by one entity(Uber). Almost every internet application works this way, Facebook for instance, you send a message on your app, it goes to a facebook server, it is stored there and then displayed at your friends chats, same goes for Snapchat, Gmail etc. This way of doing things is called a centralized system(makes sense, because everything is centered around the servers, in the Uber example, every cab user and driver interacts with a server). A simplified diagram of the same may look something like this.

A crude representation of a centralized network

Stripping of data ownership is not the only problem with this approach, a more urgent issue is security. Someone gets access to the central server, gets access to all the data, or for some reason the central server fails, it takes the entire network with it(this problem is called the central point of failure). This concept is at the center of the Aadhar card debate in India(for more insights on the situation, see: https://www.theglobalidiot.com/blog/the-aadhaar-side-of-security), the security concern is fairly simple, what if UIDAI servers are compromised? For that matter The Facebook servers and Google servers.

The most alarming issue regarding ownership is that Big Data gives insight about people on a scale we couldn’t have previously imagined. Accumulation of it under a particular entity not only means money but also power, such insights can be used to sway elections, incite revolutions and so much more, good and bad.

The Alternative?

Blockchain. It started with Bitcoin, which operated on this new technology called the blockchain, which was simply described as a decentralised ledger system(for better insights on blockchain, see:https://www.theglobalidiot.com/blog/how-blockchains-can-save-governments ), though initially designed to decentralize currency and transactions, it didn’t take tech-heads a long time to realise that this technology had a lot of other applications because well, everything runs on a ledger( a database). Bitcoin showed that information, not stored on a centralized system can be used meaningfully. The evolution of the blockchain technology finally resulted in the the Ethereum blockchain (also known as the internet 3.0), a blockchain which itself is capable of running applications and softwares.

How does this change things? Say, Facebook was running on the ethereum network. Your data would be stored on the Ethereum blockchain and encrypted with a private key, may be different parts of your data has different private keys(like your address has a different private key, your date of birth has a different private so on and so forth), so whenever Facebook application needs access to your ad preferences(maybe) it will ask for your private key which will allow the application to access the data stored on the blockchain. So, by this approach you have removed every form of centralization, the Facebook program which serves all the applications on all the devices is not running on a system owned by one private entity but is running on a system which is formed by contributions from every person on the network, and you data is stored on the Ethereum blockchain(which essentially is owned by everyone collectively) and not on servers owned by Facebook, you have exclusive access to your data which you can choose to give the application the access to as and when required.

The Implications?

Democracy came with the concept of efficient decentralization of power. Try to snatch from people their freedom, their rights; people will have an aggressive response, to fight against oppression people will unite against their oppressors(The civil rights movements in America and South Africa) we as a people feel uncomfortable towards centralization of power, but we haven’t shown that level of discomfort towards centralization of data. We don’t, in our day to day lives think about ownership of data, but data is not only an asset but a source of power if used in a certain way and hence needs to be decentralization for democracy to exist in it’s real and full glory, and now we have the technology to do the same.

for more such article, visit: www.theglobalidiot.com

Democratizing data was originally published in The Global Idiot on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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