The prevalence of ‘Big Data’ in the media is a real indication of just how valuable your personal information has become. Every single one of the most successful businesses, particularly the tech companies, relies on knowing as much as is possible about their consumers. Companies also conduct immensely detailed analytics regarding who is purchasing what, how they are using the products, how often we’re using them and where we are using them. Everyone in the western world now carries a smartphone in their pockets, and as I type, the developing world is beginning to catch up. Each one of these devices pinpoints the user to incredible accuracy, meaning Google, Apple, Facebook and any number of other big companies know a frightening amount about us at any given time. It also means that collecting our data has become very simple for them. Most of us agree to pass over our information whenever we use Google Maps, Instagram, WhatsApp, as well as many other applications. Of course, those apps come with disclaimers and small print that we must ‘accept and continue’ to use, which almost all of us do without hesitation. The upshot is we freely permit all these companies to collect and use our data, sometimes unwittingly, but often knowingly.
Is Big Data a concern?
People are understandably scared that governments and businesses know so much about them, perhaps more than their close friends and family! Having someone know so much about us when we know so little about them gives us a feeling of insecurity, powerlessness and vulnerability. But should we be so worried? Are we that vulnerable? For a long time now Big Data has been growing, and the media (as its prerogative) often paints a scary picture. In reality, there are two sides to every story, and Big Data is doing a lot of good too.
For one thing, healthcare relies on knowing detailed information on many people. Big Data initiatives have helped aggregate this data so that they can draw patterns in human biology, facilitating the discovery of medicines. Some of the more beneficial aspects of social media, such as friend recommendations, are enabled as a result of collecting massive amounts of information. Map applications that give live traffic updates work by collecting data on how quickly phones move at various sections of road. All of the above make our lives that much smoother. The recent news of a COVID’ track and trace’ app has caused something of a stir amongst many. It seems as though now it’s become more overt that the government want to use some of our information, people have realised that they don’t feel entirely comfortable with it.
COVID track and trace
One of the latest initiatives from the UK government is to introduce an app that notifies maps contact tracing, a system used to slow the spread of coronavirus. The government will ask anyone with a smartphone to download this app. If a person experiences symptoms, they input this information into the app. The app notifies any user if they come into contact with an individual showing symptoms and recommends that they self-isolate. Crucially, this app does not use GPS and therefore doesn’t know or record anyone’s specific location; it merely registers if two users have been close to each other using Bluetooth technology. The government and NHS have also been keen to stress that the app doesn’t collect user data that could identify an individual. The app does not ask for a user’s name or other personal information; it only stores a unique key that is specific to each mobile device. The app uses the key to notify each user if they come into contact with a person showing COVID symptoms. Regardless of the specifics of what is and isn’t collected, we want to know that the information is secure and invulnerable to attack.
What happens if the data is lost?
EasyJet recently admitted that 9 million people’s secure data, including credit card information, had been hacked. A breach of data is undoubtedly a considerable concern, and perfectly illustrates the weaknesses of centralised data storage (that is any information stored in a single location). The Proof of Trust believes that blockchain technology could be a great way to avoid the frailties associated with centralised systems. We must also acknowledge that blockchain is not a panacea, and there are several issues we first need to address. The first difficulty is that it is all but impossible to delete information from a blockchain, meaning this could be at odds with GDPR and an individual’s right to be forgotten. There are some beautiful workarounds to this, including such things as ‘zero-knowledge proofs’, in which a user can prove they know something, e.g. password, without having to submit the information. Identities could forever remain secret, and only specific information could be displayed when necessary — no other individual would be privy to this in any other circumstance. Secondly, any information stored on a blockchain is not necessarily correct. People are ultimately responsible for entering the data into a blockchain, typically information will come from a reliable source, but not necessarily.
The Proof of Trust
As discussed in previous articles, The Proof of Trust is ideally suited to provide verification and assurance to data entered into smart contracts and ultimately stored on a blockchain. By disseminating risk between trusted participants, the probability of submitting incorrect or inaccurate information drops significantly. Whether we like it or not, Big Data appears to be going nowhere. As mentioned, there are so many benefits to having vast amounts of available data, provided that we can trust those that hold the key. Although there are challenges to overcome, a decentralised data storage has many benefits over its centralised counterpart — security being the most obvious. The Proof of Trust proposes a method to validate data that is to be stored to ensure that we can realise the benefits of blockchain. Combining the benefits of security and provenance means will go a long way to encouraging universal blockchain adoption.