How Blockchain Helps Protect Our Privacy

Olga Shirimova
April 16, 2020
How blockchain protects privacy article featured image

Apart from health and economy, privacy is one of the biggest concerns, related to the coronavirus pandemic. Potentially, governments could use this global emergency to make mass surveillance the new normal. Let’s see how blockchain helps protect our privacy and expand our freedoms.

Temperature screening is one of the new surveillance practices the Covid-19 outbreak introduced. Image source: CNBC

Covid-19 Mass Surveillance: How It Works

To curb the pandemic, the governments of China, Israel, Singapore, Russia, and several other countries started using digital tools to trace the activity of their citizens. Here are some of the methods:

  • People coming from the infected regions must install an app that monitors their movements during 2 weeks of quarantine period.
  • Authorities use special wearables (wrist- or ankle bands) and QR codes to control the citizens.
  • Street cams apply facial recognition technology to ensure people stay off the streets.
  • Citizens have to pass through “facial recognition gates” to enter a metro station, a building, etc. 
  • Police officers wear smart helmets or glasses with infrared scanners allowing them to read the body temperature of the people they view. These helmets don’t look hi-tech, so you don’t know which policeman has superpowers.
  • The authorities use drones to look after people and even measure their temperature.
  • Some mobile operators agree to share anonymized customer data with their governments to help them trace our activities. Social media and messengers that collect our metadata may do the same.
  • On request, banks provide information about where we have used our credit cards. It helps spot quarantine breakers, who shop beyond “permitted areas”.
  • Mobile operators may share our phone location data for the same purpose.

Currently, many of these tools work imperfectly, as the authorities implemented them under time pressure. But it’s highly likely that the governments will like watching. Under the pretext of threat detection, they may continue to monitor our social and financial behavior.
Over time, their surveillance instruments will be getting better, making our life increasingly exposed and manageable.

How Blockchain Can Help Keep Things Private — or Public

The blockchain technology can be a solution to these privacy and freedom-related problems. Of course, it cannot shield you from drones and smart helmets. Neither it will help you bypass those face recognition gates and other surveillance hardware. But it can do a lot to keep us free.

First, blockchain can prevent censorship and protect our private life from all kinds of prying eyes. While governments are trying to use the pandemic to tighten their grip, we can leverage the innovative technology to unclench it. Let’s consider the major blockchain use cases in this field.

The public-powered decentralized NEWS platform, seeking to solve the problem of censorship and fake news. Image source: Golos

Blockchain Against Censorship

Since the Internet emerged, governments have wanted to control and censor the information their citizens create, share and consume. The degree and character of this censorship depends on a country. A democratic state seeks to protect kids from age-inappropriate content or block propaganda of violence. More totalitarian states want to track and manipulate their people’s data to control and punish them. Also, such states seek to control the flow of information — both in and out of the country.

With the rise of social media, our lives got online for everyone to watch. Until recently, few people worried about their privacy and personal data safety. Security was an add-on and not a necessity. All the global social media platforms and messengers have been free to harvest our data, with or without our permission.

Centralized vs Decentralized

A big problem is that all these platforms are centralized, meaning our info is stored on their servers. Therefore, they can use and share it in a way they want. Also, the government may require them to share, block or delete some information, under threat of closure or other sanctions.

Decentralized blockchain-based platforms could help the Internet recover its original goal — free access to information and users’ control over their content. In such a system, there is no way for anyone to block or re-write your story. An excellent example would be the recent Chinese pharmaceutical scandal. After the original news was deleted from everywhere, some smart user put it onto the Ethereum blockchain and thus made it immune to government censorship attempts.

We expect decentralized platforms like Publiq and DNN will be in great demand in the nearest future. Due to them, everyone will have access to uncensored content, including the uncomfortable truth.

When you grant someone your personal info in return for free services, you actually pay a good price for them. Image source: Statista

How Blockchain Helps Protect Our Privacy: Personal Data Control

Almost every day, we upload our sensitive information. We share our banking details, ID data, and social security numbers with individuals, service providers, online retailers, and various middlemen. Under quarantine, when we depend on online services for everything, we do it more often. Such constant and careless sharing means we provide third parties with our personal data. It seems not a big deal, but there are several dangers to be aware of.

First, a centralized database where your info goes to can be hacked.
Second, the platform collecting this data can use it in a way that you wouldn’t approve. For instance, to share it with some analytical agency. We can prevent such a usage if we read their Privacy Agreements accurately, but we don’t. Everyone clicks Agree automatically.

The blockchain tech makes it possible for people to regain control over their personal data. Imagine that you store your details in a decentralized database across many computers. Once verified and added to the blockchain, this data cannot be modified, deleted or stolen. As an owner, you can control who can use it, to what extent, and for what purpose. For instance, if you sell a part of your medical records to a pharma research team, you hide your personal details. On the contrary, if you deal with a bank or visa office, you give them your name, ID number, address, etc. 

The social credit system in China seeks to regulate all the aspects of life using surveillance tools.

How Blockchain Helps Protect Our Privacy: Bypassing Social Credit Systems

As the world becomes more globalized and interconnected, national governments get aware they lose control over their citizens’ financial and business activities. If a government is autocratic, it may respond by introducing something like the Chinese social credit system.

The principle is very simple: authorities use surveillance instruments to watch and assess citizens. The better you behave, the more social and economic benefits you can reach. On the contrary, rule-breakers have no (or restricted) access to important resources. Depending on what they did, bad boys and girls cannot get a loan, or buy a car, or get a reservation at a hotel.

Let’s see how blockchain can help protect our privacy in this situation.
Obviously, it lets a black sheep bypass the system. Your government thinks you are not good enough to use banking services? But you still have access to peer-to-peer platforms that they cannot control. In a blockchain-based financial network, there are no middlemen. Also, there are no real-life identities and reputations — the trust is ensured by math and not by your social credit. Got blacklisted by the government? You can still be your own decentralized bank. And the cherry on top, this bank won’t report your details to authorities (and there’s not much to report).

When cryptocurrencies go mainstream and more people start using them daily, this advantage will shine like a diamond. Actually, it might be one of the reasons many authoritarian regimes see crypto and blockchain as their natural enemy and try to ban it.

The technology has the power to knock over this outdated house of card and start a new citizen-centric era.

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