The tech industry and the billions of people who populate their platforms are undergoing a reckoning that’s causing many to question the very efficacy of the digital age.
This shifting sentiment is a spectacular change for an industry that enjoyed unquestioned adoption both at an enterprise and individual level. It’s been less than 30 years since the first website launched at CERN labs, but those three decades are comprised of nearly unbridled growth and participation in a web-based ecosystem. In virtually every way, internet services are becoming more prolific and more popular every year.
It’s easy to see why. With nearly four billion users, two billion websites, and readily available access granted by LTE connections and extremely capable smartphones, the internet is the place to be.
Moreover, participation is incentivized because the internet feels like an information superhighway where access is cheap, and in many cases, the services are free. Of course, that could not be further from the truth. The digital economy is an expansive and expensive ecosystem that’s fueled and funded by user data. According to an estimate by Forbes, internet users create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day – a number so large that it almost ceases to have real meaning.
Every click, view, like, and share is collected and catalogued to strategically promote products to improve sales. As Nicholas Confessore recently acknowledged in The New York Times Magazine, “All of this…was designed to help the real customers — advertisers — sell him things. Advertisers and their partners in Silicon Valley were collecting, selling or trading every quantum…that could be conveyed through the click of a mouse or the contents of his online shopping carts.”
Big data may drive the internet economy, but it’s quickly becoming more problematic.
The Big Problem of Big Data
All of the data creation and collection would be more palatable if it were secure. Sure companies would continue making copious amounts of money from their users’ information, but at least they won’t be compromised in a more damaging way.
Unfortunately, this information is anything but secure.
As the string of astonishing headlines over the past several years demonstrate, companies are collecting an incredible amount of user data, and that data is routinely being stolen or misused.
Consider just a few of the most obvious examples.
Yahoo, the now defunct social media platform, endured a hack so heinous that it ultimately compromised all three billion customer accounts. Other prominent companies including Target and Equifax have suffered from equally public, if not quite as prolific, hacks that compromised sensitive customer information.
This is reflective of the Wild West mentality that is pervasive in internet culture. Anything can be stolen at any time, and for most customers, this is starting to feel more like an inevitability than a possibility.
After all, if the U.S. electrical grid can’t be secured against an intrusion, what hope do ordinary consumers have?
Unfortunately, companies have little incentive to change. Although these increasingly catastrophic data breaches are avoidable, companies are entrenched in the current strategies that are delivering short-term revenue results, while ignoring the long-term consequences of their actions.
All of this data services the targeted ads that, to a significant extent, fund the internet. By owning and maintaining control of their users’ data, they can monetize users’ access. Fortunately, platforms may not be able to behave this way for long.
New technologies, specifically the blockchain, are quickly reshaping the possibilities for managing user data by allowing users to own and monetize it themselves.
The Blockchain & Big Data
The blockchain originated as the accounting backbone for Bitcoin, and it’s risen to prominence as cryptocurrencies have burst into the mainstream consciousness, collecting mind and market share along the way.
However, despite all the hype surrounding cryptocurrencies, the blockchain has successfully cut through the noise and established itself as the natural successor to the current, flawed internet infrastructure. Many of the blockchain’s inherent features including its decentralized network, smart contracts, and tokenized transactions reconfigure the possibilities for data security and usability.
Most networks are compromised because they have a single point of failure. With a big, bold centralized network to attack and little deterrence or chance of being caught, cybercriminals use rudimentary as well as technologically advanced mechanisms to steal user data. The blockchain’s decentralized network thwarts many of these attempts, and it has other features that advance its security enhancements.
More specifically, sharding techniques, which further divide and distribute data among the already decentralized blockchain network, offer an additional level of protection that truly differentiates data storage on the blockchain. Sharding is not a new concept, and it’s frequently discussed as a technique that can support platform scalability, so it’s able to accommodate platforms of different sizes and developmental levels.
When coupled with a tokenized ecosystem, these security features make user data more secure and usable than ever before. What’s more, platforms that adopt this methodology differentiate themselves from the existing tech incumbents that currently dominate the industry.
Consumers can only have so much patience with companies that consume their data while treating it irresponsibly. Therefore, It seems likely that the next iteration of the digital age will favour companies that build compelling platforms that also value their customers’ privacy and secure their data by allowing them to maintain ownership over it.
As the pendulum swings in the direction of privacy and security, organizations should be looking to the blockchain as the obvious next step toward embracing that change.