Standing Up to Big Brother with Blockchain

Blog Post
Feb. 18, 2019

Recently, Reuters broke the story about Project Raven, a clandestine team of ex-NSA cyber analysts working for the United Arab Emirates monarchy to spy on political activists, journalists, and other “national security threats.” While some may discount this story as just another example of an authoritarian government repressing the social and political freedoms of its citizens, it reveals a piece of a much larger picture. Personal liberties like privacy are under threat both by authoritarian and established democracies alike.

Over nearly two decades, governments around the world have witnessed an accelerating decline in the right to privacy, and it has been largely enabled by developments in digital technology. A Freedom House assessment of internet freedom trends shows that of 65 countries, representing 87% of global internet users, 26 countries have seen a slide towards internet monitoring and control. Many countries including China, Turkey, Ethiopia, Russia, and England have been condemned for privacy violations enabled by technology policy decisions.

Government encroachment into the private space robs citizens of the free and critical thinking essential to a democratic society. While digital technology has equipped governments with the capacity to surveil their citizens, blockchain technology may provide a promising balance to restore the right of privacy to citizens.

Designed with Privacy in Mind

The fundamental design dynamics of blockchain ensure a degree of privacy through its use of public key encryption. Public key encryption is a special type of encryption that requires two sets of keys, and public and private key, to encrypt and decrypt information. So long as the individual user keeps their private key confidential, the encrypted data can only be accessed by the intended recipient.

Since a public key uniquely corresponds to only one private key, users can also apply their key as a fingerprint to prove information provenance. In privacy terms, public key encryption not only keeps data private between intended parties, but enables users to definitively prove where data is accessed and changed, making it unlikely for manipulation or surveillance to be successful.

Another design function of blockchain is decentralization, which makes intercepting data or manipulating networks much more difficult for state actors. Digital communications sent and received through cell phones, apps, email and social media are intermediated by the companies hosting each service. These centralized communication gateways become high value targets for surveillance organizations, who can listen to private conversations, individually identity people who challenge regime policy, or shut down problematic platforms altogether.

Blockchain restructures digital communications networks by eliminating the vulnerable gateways and enabling users to communicate directly. Data on the network does not coalesce onto a single database, but is maintained in copies throughout the entire network. By creating a decentralized environment, blockchain protects internet users from unauthorized tracking and circumvents authoritarian control of information.

Efforts to Restore Privacy Are Underway

Given the privacy-enhancing capabilities of blockchain and the global need for protection from surveillance, many organizations are working on blockchain products to restore user control over their information:

  • Cryptocurrencies like Zcash and Monero use a cryptographic technique called zero-knowledge proof to enable financial transactions without revealing identity, creating a true digital cash for financial independence.
  • Blockstack is a blockchain-powered platform whereby users can use applications such as word processors, cloud storage, and instant messaging while equipping only the data owner with full access to the information on those applications.
  • The Sovrin Foundation is building a decentralized identity ecosystem called self-sovereign identity, in which identity validation can occur without having to share any details. Instead of revealing personally identifiable information when you present your ID to a bartender, the blockchain merely verifies that you are old enough to consume alcohol.

Blockchain offers one potential path to restoring the right of privacy to individuals, but challenging questions still persist.

  • The immutability of data on blockchains conflicts with conceptions of regulatory frameworks, such as the “right to be forgotten” that must be guaranteed under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
  • While data privacy laws vary by country, decentralized blockchain networks are borderless and present difficulties for law enforcement and legal systems.
  • Regulatory bodies that provide due-diligence and auditing will encounter increased friction when confronted with public key or zero-knowledge proof encryption. While popular cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have actually been instrumental in tracking illicit financial activity, fully anonymized cryptocurrency could make identifying criminals incredibly difficult.

On the other hand, would opinions change if the alleged illicit activity were financing human rights lawyers or women’s health clinics in repressive regimes?

Ultimately, the systematic weakening of commitments to privacy that underpin democratic societies is not just the fault of technological growth. Strains placed on governments due to a warming planet, economic upheaval and regional conflict have weakened public institutions and contributed to the policy drift away from personal freedom and towards justified surveillance. However, with technologies like blockchains and inclusive policy, the benefits of digital connectivity can be restored to work for the protection and benefit of all.