In 2017, almost 500 cases of data breaches were reported, totaling to just under 900 million cases of stolen data records. It was by far the most sensational year as far as cyber security and privacy was concerned, touching entities that serve billions of people across the world, including Yahoo, Uber and Equifax.
The consequences of such incidents go well beyond the theft of identity and political influence – it can even trigger an international incident, as was the case with Sony, North Korea and the movie, The Interview.
If any silver lining was to be found, it was that these vulnerabilities drew attention to the importance of privacy and security in an increasingly digital world.
The Cost of Convenience
As our digital lives increasingly take on a more prominent role in our personal and professional endeavors, the shortcomings of the internet, as well as it has served us, become even more noticeable. We have come to rely on the web and digital services to make our lives more convenient and efficient, but as has been the case with all technologies so far, we take action only after we have suffered.
The internet is a gold mine for bad actors, who find on it a potent weapon that is ripe for exploitation — data. Data that can be used to influence the minds of voters in elections, deny you financial services and professional opportunities, or simply discriminate against you.
Setting aside the ethical argument that privacy is a fundamental human right, from a sheer practical point of view, the need for a more secure (and less revenue-driven) network is imperative.
If the greater part of our lives is migrating to the internet, then those malicious actors that target us in the physical world will follow. Like how criminals gravitate towards cities, so it is with the internet. The internet is where the money is — as industries and entities rely more heavily on the internet, the opportunities for exploitation expands.
The weakness of centralized systems, and the unfortunate effectiveness of phishing tactics, are only one manifestation of criminal activity on the web. There is another equally disingenuous financial element that must be dealt with: digital advertising models.
Content has become a substantial financial generator in recent years, with bloggers and YouTubers influencing million of viewers and pulling in millions of dollars. These high-flying individuals form the minority — most content creators struggle to earn enough, and have to turn to crowdfunding on Kickstarter and Patreon to continue their work (an activity, you’ll note, that is similar to the decentralized nature of blockchains).
Today’s digital advertising model is disproportionately in favor of advertisers and platforms like Google, which take a great portion of the revenue and distribute a pitiful sum to the content creators. Not only is this plain injustice, but it also encourages the creation of poor quality content, as people rapidly churn out videos just to meet some ridiculous metric.
Advertisers also gain an unfair advantage by simply paying an enormous sum to the influencer with the largest outreach, thereby creating a self-perpetuating loop where those with the most money win.
The threat also extends beyond just monetary theft and inequity — other key sectors such as the military, energy and healthcare are also extremely vulnerable. The traditional gun-wielding terrorist will find it impossible to disrupt the economic pillars of a country, but the cyber-terrorist can cause lasting damage from a chair halfway across the world. Entire power grids could be shut down, dosage instructions of patients could be altered to lethal effect, and a stock market attack could have dire global effects.
The blindness that affects us, caused by all the benefits we have gained from the internet, has has cast a shadow over fundamentally important rights and values. Having been given so much possibility with the internet, we have forgotten to examine what is being lost.
We Need a Rapid Solution for an Increasingly Influential Web
In the face of the internet’s growing role in our lives, the absence of a secure infrastructure, combined with the fact that your activity is virtually recorded permanently, the current internet model becomes a pressing issue that demands quick resolutions — preferably before the time bomb that is legacy systems explodes.
One might claim that the flaws of our centralized web systems are being patched up by lawmakers, as is the case with GDPR.
However, we know that that is not enough.
The real concern is that no matter what regulation is enforced, users will always be subject to the whims of those who have power at the most fundamental layer, like Google and Facebook, which are entities that control what we see and experience on the internet to a worrying degree.
What regulations could make an effective practical difference to these entrenched powers? We must look to a network that empowers individuals and gives them the decisive power on how the internet is run.
Additionally, despite attempts by governmental entities to curtail the monetization of our data and support freedom of speech and thought, surveillance and censorship are still rampant. One need only take a look at the several dictatorships around the world, all of which limit freedom on the internet — which by extension is a curtailing of freedom in our physical lives.
The upside is that we might have a solution in the not too distant future.
Blockchain Offers Hope
A decentralized system has the potential to overcome all of these challenges — preventing a shutdown, censorship or manipulation. While it cannot be claimed that blockchain will descend from the sky as an all-curing miracle, it offers us a glimmer of hope in finding a solution to this problem.
No such miracle platform yet exists, but a solution for the problem at a fundamental level is conceivable.
Such a revolutionary platform would require a redesign of all the basic layers of the internet, including communication, application and transport layers — while still ensuring that the economic incentives of a centralized system can cross over to a decentralized network.
These 2 issues are at the heart of the challenge of creating a new kind of internet, and projects that are working towards creating a flexible system that can be customized to suit different needs will become tomorrow’s digital homes.
Being a decentralized system, the network will depend greatly on user participation to support the infrastructure — yet, it must be free, or reasonably affordable, to achieve large scale use. This is a notable problem in building “Web 3.0.” On the other hand, centralized systems come with certain innate advantages, like scalability (for which a decentralized network must invest much resources to achieve.) For the near future, no decentralized internet will be able to match our current internet on a large scale.
In short, the tantalizing prospects of a better internet made possible by a decentralized network is obstructed by several challenges. Juggling several different properties whilst also introducing new features using a very recent technology is a monumental task.
However, projects like Promether indicate that there are teams out there working hard at solving the problems of network growth, performance, and incentivization and cost.
At a time when the cryptocurrency market is saturated and several hundred projects have faded into non-existence, the question as to why a new project should be given any thought might arise.
But nothing is set and done in the blockchain space — we have barely gotten off the ground.
The most we can say is that there are some projects with a certain vision and some possible solutions to its technical hurdles. The newness of it all is why we should pay some heed to projects that are trying to work the benefits of decentralized technology onto a more solid foundation.
As much potential as projects might have, there has been a string of glaring security issues upon their launch – the security issues experienced by EOS post-launch and Verge’s 51% attack resulting in a theft of nearly $2 million are prime examples. A slow and steady approach that provides basic requirements first and decentralized solutions on top of that is what we should aim for.
Projects that have started after the hype phase of a technology are in a good position to deliver this.
Solutions Lie at a Fundamental Level
Promether’s whitepaper offers some insight into how its different platform elements will together offer users free internet access without sacrificing security, performance, usability or privacy.
Their approach targets building a new application block, a decentralized VPN, secure communication channels, modularity in the network and file storage services. The platform is shaping up to be competitive, and offers features that comparable projects like MaidSafe lack.
Still, the team is aware that it’s not a revolution that will happen overnight. Security flaws will always be found, scalability will continue to plague blockchain into the near future, and who knows how authorities will react to such a drastically different internet?
In spite of all of this, the team’s desire to accommodate as many stakeholders as possible, and the willingness to adapt as society’s perception of blockchain and cryptocurrency changes, is admirable.
Ambitious projects like Promether are promising as they take a realistic approach to the problem and note that there are several hurdles to be overcome. As the inevitable data and privacy breaches and subsequent debates occur over the next few years, the calls for a more secure web shielded from corporate and government influence will only grow stronger.
Let’s hope that a solution will be offered before too much damage has been done.