Category Archives: Privacy

Blockchain’s Promise: Trust

Pete Harris stopped by a session of the World Spins to share his take on blockchain, the software technology generally overshadowed by its trendier spawn, bitcoin and the Bitcoin network. Harris, who bears a striking resemblance to Bilbo Baggins, has a relationship to hype similar to mine with spreadsheets. That is, he is clear and takes  sticks to the facts as he sees them. Even so, it doesn’t take long to recognize blockchain’s promise. If it’s possible to transact business based on a series of permanent (i.e. they can’t be changed), transparent interactions, then our trust-starved world may have a chance of recovering its footing.

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The blockchain network: can it build trust?  Photo courtesy by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, courtesy of Forbes

 

“We’ll have to wait and see” 

Harris’ blockchain CV dates from his Wall Street consulting days over a decade ago. These days, having sworn off airplanes, he spends much of his time with the Austin startup community where over 70 young cryptocompanies are  tackling data integrity issues where they find them — finance, healthcare, contracts.

I watched a handful present at Harris’ Monday night meetup. They ranged from Po.et, copyright/intellectual property protection, to GovernanceChain, an accounting network and CityShare, a digital shopping/hospitality network for member cities. Among the more visible is Wanchain, a Chinese nonprofit that’s figuring out to securely connect separate smart contracts, each with its own blockchain, a pivotal step in supporting a currency-agnostic global financial network. Interestingly, Wanchain’s technology is developed in China; the company’s U.S. headquarters is in Austin.

One of the best parts of these presentations is listening to company execs say, “I don’t know,” and “We’ll have to wait and see” — something I hear very often.  But I suppose that’s the beauty of a working with a nascent technology.

Privacy is implicit in the design

Speaking of wait-and-see, someone asked about blockchain’s impact on GDPR, the  European Union’s toughened privacy requirements known as the General Data Protection Rules. With the compliance deadline looming next month, that too is a wait-and-see. But since transactions are permanent, transparent and traceable, the blockchain ledger eliminates the need for centralized control. The integrity of the information is inherent in the software design.

A peek at a mobile citizenry in a digital world 

Today, 10% of the world’s GDP is in block chain. But it’s not all business. In the public sector, tiny Estonia has fashioned itself what the New Yorker magazine labelled a digital republic. Its citizens are free to live and work wherever they please while continuing to  vote, maintain their health, pay taxes using digital IDs.

Curious? Here in Austin, check out the:

Can Tech Companies Protect Privacy — and Still Make Money?

Did you know Google Feud’s #1 response to the phrase, “My friend is addicted to ____” is  “phone.” But as technology continues to permeate our lives, a lot of tech companies would plug in “collecting your personal information” instead.

A few weeks ago a friend mentioned that she’s closeted her Alexa after getting a call from a vendor offering her a great price on tickets to a concert featuring country music superstar Brad Paisley.  This following a conversation among family members the day before about that very concert. They happened to be standing next to a kitchen counter where Alexa sat. Was she listening?  Who knows.

Alexa

Good deeds? Amazon’s Alexa will even donate to your favorite charity.

Unlike the Europeans who’ve been quick to cry foul, we Americans remain confused and oddly offended when we discover (if we discover) our information has been sold and used without our permission. There is no constitutional right to privacy.  In the 1970’s, the Federal Trade Commission was charged with protecting and regulating privacy rights, but the FTC has hesitated to move decisively.

Succeeding and staying ahead is a struggle for any company, particularly small tech companies.  Long ago, I took a job on the frontier of the New Economy when a venture-funded start-up hired me to roll out their personalization offering, a service that would help large brick-and-mortar retailers boost their online  loyalty (and sales) by tailoring web views to shoppers’ traits — gender, geography and shopping habits. It was a great customer service idea, one that has evolved to the point that the Zappos we admire  haunt us for days to come.

 

At the time, we jumped into the thick of it. It was an opportunistic, defensive strategy. We formed a privacy advisory council, met with Congressional representatives,  influencers and media. In 2000, we joined and participated in the FTC’s Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security.  The offering would ask people to opt in, rather than automatically including them in invisible information gathering.  But we were never able to sell a product, and the company folded 18 months later.  We were small, but if you’re big and want (or need) to feed investors and stakeholders, the temptation to step over the line to get ahead is going to be even greater. It gets hard to even see the line when you’re in the rush of generating and executing great ideas.

We did all the right things in those early days, but we ultimately failed because customers expect companies to deliver value — innovation — first.  Privacy is generally an afterthought. Amazon, Facebook and Google knew this from the get-go.

Postscript:  The Washington Post reports that the FTC has asked Facebook, whose entire business model seems to be built on selling users’ data,  to appear and an expanding Congressional probe is including Google and Twitter. Should be interesting.