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2018: When Privacy and Decentralization Collided

Guy Zyskind is the CEO and co-founder of Enigma, a secure computation protocol that integrates with blockchains. The following is an exclusive contribution to CoinDesk’s 2018 Year in Review. In 2018, two major long-term trends finally collided in a very public fashion. The first trend was the over-centralization of online platforms. For years, Facebook, Google and…



Guy Zyskind is the CEO and co-founder of Enigma, a safe computation protocol that integrates with blockchains.

The following is an unique contribution to CoinDesk’s 2018 Year in Review.

2018 year in review

In 2018, two main long-term developments in the end collided in an excessively public style.

The first development was once the over-centralization of on-line platforms. For years, Facebook, Google and others amassed energy and affect by way of centralizing person conduct. Products given to customers “for free” created closed methods and echo chambers designed to stay customers within siloed ecosystems. In flip, platforms repackaged those captured customers into profitable promoting merchandise, growing a web-based oligopoly.

The 2d development was once the erosion of information privateness. An entire loss of transparency round how information was once used, shared and safe by way of platforms and establishments led to a couple dramatic revelations. First, Cambridge Analytica whistleblowers uncovered how Facebook information was once misused to focus on folks throughout political campaigns. The remainder of the yr was once stuffed with information tales of massive data breaches, hacking coverups and sure, even more terrifying Facebook revelations.

So why did the whole thing explode in 2018? The fact is that those developments were converging for a long time. Many of probably the most scary information pieces of 2018 involved vulnerabilities that experience existed for years. The best factor other about this yr is that we in the end began to note. And possibly that’s the scariest factor of all.

No simple repair

It’s simple to peer how centralization and knowledge privateness are related. Without the precise oversight, monopolistic platforms don’t seem to be held in control of their use of our information – or how it’s safe. Also, retaining information in centralized databases below a unmarried entity’s regulate creates a juicy goal for opportunistic hackers who may leak, exploit, or ransom the information.

What’s no longer simple, on the other hand, is growing decentralized choices that adequately deal with the problem of information privateness. There have been numerous articles written over the last yr extolling the virtues of blockchain and the way it will disrupt Facebook’s trade endlessly by way of enabling decentralized social platforms. Most of those articles, on the other hand, contained a elementary false impression of the way blockchain labored or lost sight of its current boundaries (like scalability and privateness). As a end result, they didn’t foresee how difficult addressing this downside would in fact be.

This is the place the 3rd main development of 2018 is available in: the (over)correction of the blockchain hype cycle.

Enthusiastic hypothesis round the potential for blockchain exploded to unsustainable ranges in 2017 and carried over into this yr. Magazine covers and idea leaders promoted blockchain as a possible cure-all. Nearly any downside might be solved by way of “throwing a blockchain at it,” with WIRED famously categorizing 187 things the blockchain is supposed to fix. But as marketplace costs for cryptoassets started to implode, this checklist narrowed dramatically over the process 2018, culminating with extra proclamations from idea leaders that “blockchain is useless.”

While there is also no result in sight for the primary two developments – monopolistic platforms nonetheless lack oversight and transparency, and the worst breaches of information privateness are most probably but to come back – there are indicators the blockchain hype cycle has stabilized. Expectations are starting to align with truth – and actual answers are being proposed.

Decentralized answers for information privateness

We printed an editorial at the Enigma blog again in March (across the time of the unique Cambridge Analytica tale) about how blockchain alone could not fix Facebook. As we wrote on the time:

“While blockchain is great for correctness and transparency, it fails in privacy. Today, as blockchain is applied to the financial system, we are able to see all transactions that have ever taken place. In a future where we have decentralized social networks, we will see all likes, posts, and connections. In other words, blockchains alone cannot give people control over their own data.”

This commentary was once our try to take a measured technique to the issues of over-centralization and knowledge privateness. Rather than rejecting the software of blockchain, we was hoping that individuals would see blockchain for what it was once excellent at being – a decentralized verification layer, no longer a whole platform. Fortunately, many developers and leaders within the house have embraced this wholesome point of view, together with Vitalik Buterin and the Web3 Foundation.

We be expecting 2019 to carry persisted center of attention at the non-blockchain layers of the tech stack for the decentralized internet. These come with oracles, decentralized garage, state channels – however most likely most significantly – privacy-preserving computation. This lets in encrypted information to be computed by way of nodes in a decentralized community – all with out revealing the information to the nodes themselves.

Secure computation has been a box of research because the 1980s, lengthy prior to Satoshi proposed bitcoin. It is incessantly regarded as the “holy grail” of pc science – and with contemporary developments, we’re in the end starting to notice one of the crucial potentials of safe computation.

When blended with different decentralized applied sciences akin to blockchain, we will be able to create foundational platforms for unstoppable packages that keep the privateness in their customers. The dream of dapps has at all times been to position the wishes and pursuits of customers first – protective their information and identities whilst fighting censorship. Decentralized privateness answers are the lacking piece for figuring out this dream.

In 2019, we will be able to be expecting to peer increasingly more tasks within the blockchain house embracing privateness answers, including Ethereum itself.

There are many applied sciences to discover, akin to zero-knowledge proofs and zk-snarks/starks, relied on execution environments, safe multi-party computation and completely homomorphic encryption. Understanding any considered one of them is difficult, and the improvement paintings supporting those applied sciences remains to be in its earliest phases. However, protocols in accordance with those privateness applied sciences have as a lot doable to reshape the arena as blockchain itself – if no longer considerably extra so.

What now?

In 2018, the dialog round the potential for blockchains became all of a sudden from “what can’t they do?” to “what can they do?” Pundits started to claim blockchains an answer searching for an issue. But this ignores the very actual issues throughout us, from executive censorship to damaged monetary methods to the widespread violation of information privateness and safety.

In 2019, we imagine the dialog will flip once more as other folks start to notice the deep dating between those issues and decentralized answers. Specifically, we predict other folks to appreciate that the best dangers to information privateness have at all times come from centralized platforms and architectures – and that that is by way of design, no longer by chance. We additionally be expecting other folks to grasp the restrictions of blockchain as a privateness answer – once more by way of design. The developments have already coincided. It’s as much as all people to assist draw the connections.

Our biggest precedence in 2019, past development, will have to be schooling and advocacy. Importantly, this effort can’t simply be restricted to blockchain era. We will have to additionally center of attention on different decentralized applied sciences and the issues they are able to assist clear up, akin to censorship and knowledge privateness. In that remaining house, there are already many improbable organizations doing nice paintings on schooling and advocacy, together with the Tor Project and EFF.

We need and wish decentralized applied sciences to be globally applied and feature international relevance. To do that, we will have to all embody functions past hypothesis.

Our objective is privateness. What’s yours?

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