Reclaiming your digital identity
The recent discovery that Cambridge Analytica harvested millions of Facebook user's digital identities to exploit for political purposes has caused a whirlwind of recriminations.
Whilst Facebook and Cambridge Analytica will (rightly) be the target of finger pointing, the misuse of personal data should not come as a surprise. The tech giants such as Facebook and Google have been selling our data for years; it sits at the heart of their business. We all know this. Users of such services have decided they just don't care.
The outrage here comes largely because it potentially played a role in the 2016 US election and Brexit referendum. Again, the surprise is slightly overdone - ever since Barack Obama's victory in 2008 the role of Big Data in securing votes has been obvious. To think that political operations weren't stretching the use of analytics in the decade since is naive.
But the anger also comes because the data was sold on without consent (just as it will have been many times before without our knowing) and, without the help of a whistleblower, no-one would have ever been the wiser. People sense a tangible link between their data being shared and a deeply divisive election result.
The rapid advancement of the twin headed dragon of social media and mobile phones in the last 10-15 years into a large part of people's lives has not been met by an accompanying evolution of awareness in our online identities. Most (by no means all) people know enough to not post their credit card details or home addresses online. But very few know (or care) about the wider and much more useful data that companies use about us.
Big Data collates every trace of our digital footprint, from search results to mapping our movements to internet usage and shopping habits. This Vice article, released in January prior to the exposé, explains in greater detail the vast range of signals we leave every second we are using social media or our phones.
But our data is under threat from more sources than just social media. Cambridge Analytica, for example, used data ranging from house sales, shopping reward schemes, travel websites, credit agencies, online libraries - everything they could use was used. Our personal information is readily available for sale, linking everything you do online with all you do offline.
As the Cambridge Analytica CEO, Alexander Nix, claimed: "We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people."
This changes Big Data from a simple tool, categorising people by their broad likes and dislikes (e.g. likes Football) into an intelligent machine which knows more about you than your friends will. In the hands of a malicious actor, such as appears the case in the Trump campaign, this data can then be used to manipulate you to vote - or to stay away.
So what can we do about it? Do we have a choice? Is there an alternative?
Blockchain has a number of potential uses, but one of the most immediate ways it could enter public consciousness for something other than volatile price movements could be through safeguarding personal data.
Instead of your data being in the hands of companies which are prone to being hacked, you would instead control your own data and then choose which parts of it to share at a given time.
For example, you create an ID on the blockchain in the same way you would create a Bitcoin address. You then upload data about yourself e.g. passport, bank statements, proof of address, date of birth etc. Then, when you encounter a company that requires your information (e.g. you apply for a mortgage) you could share just the parts of your information you wish to share. All information remains yours at all times. Projects such as SelfKey and Civic are currently working on bringing this to reality.
There are numerous obstacles standing in the way of this being realised, but how people's personal information is being used will only become more of a concern as technology progresses. Recent products such as Alexa and other home monitoring devices will provide a whole host of other potential insights into how people live, act and think. Companies will continue to get hacked and the (mis)use of our data will only escalate now that it has been considered to have successfully impacted on an election in the most powerful democracy in the world. Blockchain is not a magical panacea, but it does have the potential to help us lock down our personal information.