In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal around Facebook, many are calling for more strict data privacy measures at top tech companies. The problem is these companies depend on user data and attention as the product they sell to advertisers. Facebook isn’t likely to stop sharing user data anytime soon, since that user data is a huge part of their business model.
That being the case, many of those arguing for the end of Facebook have cited blockchain as an alternative way of facilitating social media. While decentralization may certainly be part of the solution, blockchain alone won’t solve the data privacy issues inherent in social media. Giving users control over their data is a larger challenge that will involve blockchain, but blockchain alone can’t solve it.
Over the past month, Facebook has been in turmoil over user data privacy. An organization known as Cambridge Analytica gained access to data from over 50 million Facebook users. How they acquired that data, however, is the shocking part.
1.1 How They Got the Data
The data came from asking Facebook users if they wanted to take a quiz. These fun trivia games and personality tests are all over Facebook, and there’s nothing unusual about taking a Facebook quiz. However, in order to take the quiz you needed to give the app access to your Facebook profile information. While this is slightly more troublesome, ultimately if a user consents to sharing their information with the quiz makers, then that’s perfectly legitimate.
The sinister part of all this is when you granted the quiz access to your profile information, it also got information on all your friends. When you gave the app permission to access your information, you were also letting it see who you friends were and what you know about them. Your friends didn’t have any say over the decision, and usually, you wouldn’t know that the app was harvesting your friends’ information.
1.2 Not Against Facebook’s Rules (At the Time)
The end result is millions of users worry that Facebook doesn’t take privacy seriously. It’s plausible that if Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest that much information, there’s nothing stopping other companies from doing something similar at the same time. There are likely many other user data breaches that we just don’t know about yet.
2. Big Tech’s Data Privacy Problem
This is not a Facebook-only problem. All major tech companies are collecting, using, and sometimes giving away user data on a massive scale. Apple has phone numbers, call/message logs, and App Store download history for every iPhone user. Google has data from Gmail accounts and Android phones. Amazon has your complete order history. Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Snapchat have similar user data to Facebook that they can use and share.
It’s worth mentioning here that most platforms have encryption in place so Google can’t read your emails and Apple can’t see your iMessages. However, they do have access to metadata about how often you message certain people and how long those messages are. Even anonymized, this allows tech companies to run complex analytics and learn about your social sphere in intricate ways.
With the Cambridge Analytica scandal, consumers are becoming more aware of these facts. Articles across the web remind people–if it’s a free service, you’re likely the product that the company is selling to advertisers.
As a result, tech companies are facing increased demand to know how they’re using and sharing data. Consumers also want to know what happens to their data after it leaves the hands of the tech company.
3. Why Would You Use a Blockchain?
Blockchain could solve this problem of tracking where data goes.
The ultimate goal of blockchain technology is decentralization and transparency. For example, we didn’t know Facebook had given away data on a scale like this until now, and it’s possible they’ve given away more data that we don’t know about yet. If that data lived on a blockchain, however, we’d be able to track it. We could see who is using it. We could also see who else the data has been shared with beyond the original party.
By decentralizing the storage and maintenance of data with a blockchain, we gain insight into who has access to the data and what’s happening with it. Nevertheless, the blockchain isn’t a perfect solution for user data. The transparency of the blockchain means it’s not always good for privacy.
4. Decentralization Doesn’t Equal Privacy
Just because something is decentralized and traceable doesn’t mean it’s private. In fact, a pure blockchain is arguable less private, because anyone on the network can see all the transaction history. Blockchain helps us secure and keep track of data, but we’ll need a suite of privacy tools that help encrypt and create access controls for that data, in addition to blockchain..
Putting a piece of data on the blockchain means I control it. But once I share that piece of data with someone else, there’s no good way to prevent that person from turning around and sharing the data again. Since the blockchain is decentralized, there’s no central authority that can stop someone from re-sharing your data. The blockchain ledger is also immutable, so there’s no good way to get your data back.
5. A World without Facebook?
Data privacy and control is an important issue, and now is a great time for blockchain to shine as a potential player in the race to fix data privacy. However, blockchain alone won’t solve this challenge. It can secure data, but its decentralized nature means that it’s difficult to stop others from re-sharing your data once you’ve given it away. Fixing Facebook will involve other access control technologies that limit sharing and truly give users control over how their data gets used.