Encyclopaedia Britannica was replaced by Wikipedia.
Most of the world’s libraries are being usurped by Google.
Mobile apps like WhatsApp, WeChat and LINE are shoving out landline and cell communications all over the world.
Also in jeopardy: Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
Facebook’s Disclosed Breach
Facebook’s most recently disclosed breach, impacting over 50 million users, already has most of the world up in arms.
Users are deleting their Facebook accounts. Investors are dumping Facebook shares. And widely read editorials, like Thomas Friedman’s in Tuesday’s New York Times, are saying that the only solution is “moral leadership.”
The great hope is that decision-makers at centrally controlled organizations like Facebook will somehow rise to the occasion and do the right thing for their customers.
Indeed, that’s what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to have promised when he apologized for this scandal.
He will remain ever more vigilant. He will crack down on other apps that may cause similar leaks. He will take action against any use of private information that Facebook deems “illegitimate.”
“Yes!” responded the diminishing crowd of loyal users. “We should all be so lucky! Facebook will protect us.”
But, what, in essence, does this so-called protection entail? The answer…
We’re talking about broad, oft-arbitrary, computer-driven censorship — all in the hands of central decision-makers.
They, and only they, are the self-anointed “lords” of social media.
They alone have bestowed upon themselves the right to silence, marginalize and exclude anyone from the forum of public debate.
Trouble is, in today’s digitalized world, the overwhelming bulk of all conversations and debates happen on one social media platform or another. So, to be shut out from online discussions is the ultimate in censorship. You lose your voice. Period.
Moreover, all of the big social media platforms are run by private, for-profit, centrally controlled corporations, empowered to make all the important decisions.
What About the Billions of Social Media Users?
For the most part, they are not really the customers. They’re the product.
And it’s big. Social media giants like Facebook — along with search engine giants like Google — hold the keys to terabytes of private user information.
They are all too willing to use that wealth of information to shape public opinion and perception. They are empowered to decide what we see. They decide what we don’t see.
And this ultimately gives them the means to lead people to believe what they want people to believe.
What Else Do They Do With All This Private Information?
They sell it. That’s their business. That’s what they do.
Unsuspecting users reveal detailed, personal information. This data is then compiled with hidden, “proprietary” algorithms. And it’s sold to virtually any company willing to buy it.
Most of it is for commercial use, and most users grudgingly accept that. Companies use the data to more precisely target their ads to the most likely prospects for their products.
“OK, OK,” say most users, thinking they have no other choice.
But private info can also be used for politics. And among some political data firms, the mission is often an unabashed nose-thumb at a country’s best interests.
The “research firm” buying the data could have ties to a rogue government. That government would acquire the data with the sole purpose of shaping public opinion and interfering with democratic processes. Or worse.
That is, indeed, a big problem.
The solution, however, is not more censorship. Nor is it the naive expectation that decision-makers will somehow find the correct “moral path.”
What, then, is the solution? Before we answer that question, here are some basic no-nos with their logical consequences…
• Let social media platforms slide down the slippery slope of censorship, and, in many parts of the world, it won’t be long before they morph into propaganda machines for the state.
• Build handy tools that enable central governments to intrude into the private life of their citizens, and some of them will do just that.
• Store a wealth of private information about millions of users in one central location, and sooner or later, someone or some government will get their grubby hands on it, use it for nefarious ends and wreak havoc.
• Build all the protective barriers you want. Firewalls. Moats with alligators or swamps with dragons. It doesn’t matter. As long as the data itself is centralized and unencrypted, there will be leaks. The data is a pot of gold. Some “genius” will always find way to get to it.
That’s Where Crypto Comes In
The fundamental issue — the core reason we’ve witnessed so many data breaches impacting so many millions of users — isn’t necessarily that companies are amoral or negligent.
It’s primarily because their business model is built on centralized databases, and it will be almost impossible for companies like Facebook to change that model.
Their databases are controlled by a single, central authority. Maybe a corporate board. Maybe a chief executive officer (CEO) or chief technology officer (CTO). Perhaps a cabinet secretary or central banker.
That centralization is the true root of the problem.
So, it follows that the only truly viable, long-term solution is decentralization. Decentralized databases!
The technical term is “Distributed Ledger Technology” (DLT) — a secure, encrypted database shared across multiple users, companies or countries.
And that is what cryptocurrencies and their platforms are all about.
The Crypto Revolution
In a world where DLT is mainstream, data breaches are virtually impossible. Each user holds the key to all of his or her private information. No government or corporation gets access.
This information isn’t limited to “likes” on Facebook, shopping patterns on Amazon or images on Snapchat.
It also includes each individual’s medical records, ID, voting records or even DNA. If you store your personal information with DLT, no CEOs, CTOs or government officials can lay their hands on it.
Only you can access your data.
With DLT, social media platforms no longer need to rely on advertising models that encourage them to spy on their users.
Private information is not stored in a central location, so it cannot be stolen. It cannot be used by adversarial governments to mount cyberattacks or interfere in election processes.
To pursue any of those missions, they would need to hack into each and every computer of every individual user, a virtually impossible feat.
We know because we have solid, real-world evidence that it’s impossible to hack into the bitcoin network, which uses the same technology. It will be equally impossible to hack into the private records of tens of millions of users.
A pipe dream? No. These technologies are being built today!
That’s the crypto revolution. And it has barely begun.
Martin D. Weiss, Ph.D., and Juan M. Villaverde