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Blockchain can free us from the nightmares of online surveillance | Opinion

Opinion
Blockchain can free us from the nightmares of online surveillance | Opinion

Disclosure: The views and opinions expressed here belong solely to the author and do not represent the views and opinions of crypto.news’ editorial.

These days, the internet has become our second home. It’s where we communicate, work, shop, and socialize. But lurking beneath the surface lies an unsettling truth: we are being watched. Online surveillance has grown into an unprecedented force, infringing on our privacy and encroaching into every aspect of our lives. I believe blockchain technology holds the key to reclaiming our digital freedom.

Online surveillance isn’t anything new. In the early 2000s, with the advent of social media and the exponential growth of internet usage, governments and corporations saw the internet as a goldmine of data. From social media platforms to search engines, virtually every online service began collecting every piece of information they could get their hands on. Nobody was asked if they wanted to share their personal lives with Google, and nobody told them that Amazon would know everything about them.

For many people 2013 was probably the first time they ever even considered the concept of online surveillance, when Edward Snowden exposed government surveillance programs which allowed the US Government to essentially spy on their own citizens. This was an earth-shattering development for public awareness, but the sad fact is that it did very little to slow the degradation of freedom online. Today, the surveillance landscape is more complex and pervasive than ever before, with advancements in artificial intelligence and big data analytics enabling unprecedented levels of monitoring.

Data and data collection

A large part of the business model of virtually every internet company has come to rely on data collection and targeted advertising. By gathering detailed information about users’ behaviors, preferences, and interactions, these companies can create highly personalized advertising experiences, driving their profits at the expense of user privacy. They’re not asking either, at least not unless they’re forced to, they simply take what they want and use it in whatever way will make them the most money.

Governments, on the other hand, justify surveillance under the guise of national security and crime prevention. Obviously protecting citizens is a legitimate concern, there is a delicate balance between security and privacy, and this balance has tipped dangerously towards the former. Laws like the United States PATRIOT Act and, more recently, the UK’s Online Safety Act have granted governments sweeping powers to monitor online activities with little regard for oversight or transparency.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there either; the technological infrastructure of the internet itself has inherent design limitations that facilitate surveillance. Centralized servers, which store vast amounts of user data, are prime targets for anyone seeking to access and exploit personal information. Just think about the sheer number of data breaches you hear about in the news. According to the ID Theft Resource Center, there were 3205 data breaches last year alone, potentially affecting upwards of 350 million users.

Decentralization is the key

In this context, blockchain technology emerges as a beacon of hope. On the surface this might sound counterintuitive. An immutable public ledger is kind of opposed to the idea of privacy right? But where blockchain shines its capability to create permissionless incentive mechanisms. These mechanisms allow decentralised networks of nodes to perform services such as routing and storage and computation. 

This potential to safeguard privacy is particularly evident in the realm of messaging apps. Traditional messaging platforms often rely on centralized servers to store and transmit messages, making them vulnerable to hacking, data breaches, and government surveillance. 

On the other hand, we have web3 apps like Session leveraging blockchain to fight surveillance with decentralization. Community-operated networks of nodes handle all of the message routing and storage, and for this they are rewarded with network-native cryptocurrency.

Trust is a bit of a dirty word in privacy. Centralized networks operate on a trust model where a single entity holds control and authority over the network. This requires users of the network to place their trust in this entity to act responsibly. And let’s be honest: the companies that run services that we all rely on have done nothing to earn that trust. 

Decentralized networks remove the need for trust altogether by making sure that no single entity holds overarching power. Security and privacy are enhanced by ensuring that even if some nodes are compromised, the overall network remains secure and operational. This model removes single points of failure, fostering a trustless environment where the system’s design and incentives maintain security and reliability without requiring users to trust any single entity.

Looking ahead with hope 

This promise of the future extends beyond messaging apps. It is a foundational element of web3, a reimagining of the internet, which envisions a decentralised, user-centric digital ecosystem. Web3 aims to dismantle the centralized power structures that have enabled widespread surveillance and place the power back in the hands of the people.

In this new paradigm, which is closer to the original vision of the internet, individuals can own and manage their data, deciding who is allowed to access it and for what purpose. Decentralized applications will replace traditional services, offering greater transparency and security. Smart contracts will automate transactions and enforce agreements without the need for intermediaries, reducing the risk of data breaches and unauthorized access.

I’m confident that the internet can become the bastion of freedom and privacy that it was always meant to be, where users can interact without fear of being watched or exploited. Blockchain is not a panacea, but it is a crucial tool in the fight against online surveillance. By embracing decentralization, we can create a digital world that respects our fundamental rights and empowers individuals.

The fight against online surveillance is one of the defining challenges of our time. As we navigate the complexities of the digital age, it is imperative that we prioritize privacy and take decisive action to protect our online freedoms. Decentralization offers a path forward, enabling us to build a more secure, private, and equitable internet. 

Kee Jefferys
Kee Jefferys

Kee Jefferys is the CTO of Session, an encrypted messaging application that minimizes the collection of user metadata. Kee has been involved in numerous technological projects, specializing in decentralized networking and blockchain. He co-authored the Oxen whitepaper as well as the Session whitepaper, and has acted as the technical lead for both projects since 2018. Oxen is a proof-of-stake privacy coin that has a unique layer two node infrastructure capable of supporting private and decentralized applications. Kee is an active and engaged member of the privacy-preserving technology community, regularly attending conferences and meetups centered around privacy protection, the fight for encryption, and ethical data.