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When the right to privacy meets blockchain

Mohit Mamoria
1st Sep 2017
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How can the right to privacy actually be implemented?

A few days ago, the Supreme Court ruled that privacy is a fundamental right, and we all rejoiced. After all, it seemed as though the government was being told that it cannot force citizens to participate in their surveillance. We have become part of a society that is continuously watched by the big boys.

Every purchase you make, every cab you take, every banking transaction you initiate, you are under surveillance. The argument given in favour of such a society is that it is necessary for the safety of the citizens. The logic put forth is that only if these corporations or governments know everything about everyone can they find the nuisance-creating elements in the society.

They say convenience and safety will come at the cost of privacy.

The problem is that the access to our identities, behaviour, and data not only allows them to provide safety but also gives them permission to track us and use the data in any manner they deem fit — including selling it.

Even if we leave aside the ethical side of the equation, the more important question is how they plan to make sure that the data in their custody will always be secure.

One night. One hack. And one whole nation might crumble to its knees.

The recent judgment might have been the result of questions on Aadhaar (the equivalent of SSN for India), but the right to privacy goes beyond that.

What is the right to privacy?

The right to privacy is one of those grey fundamental rights that get interpreted in various forms depending on the light we see them in. In the most straightforward version that I can think of, it is a kind of law that restrains governments and other private organisations from carrying out actions that threaten the privacy of an individual.

What does ‘privacy of an individual’ include? That is a question worth a fortune.

Is your income covered under your privacy? If yes, you might be free to skip filing your income tax return. Therefore, perhaps not. Also, the income is carried out using the currency regulated by the government; therefore, the information is not entirely private. So, the government might want to know how much of their money was moved throughout the year by anyone, as well as how it was done.

Are your fingerprints covered under privacy? Certainly. You own your fingerprints, and they are unique to you.

Are your sexual preferences considered private to you? Yes. Eating habits? Yes. Iris print? Yes.

How do we think about the right to privacy?

I often like to quote Yogi Berra:

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

I believe the same would go for this particular fundamental right too. The conventional thinking goes like this: let’s put all our valuable and private information in one pool controlled by the nation’s government. Whenever a third party needs to access someone’s information, they would ask for permission, and it’d be at the citizens’ discretion whether or not to allow them access.

Sounds good, no? Except for two reasons.

  1. What happens when the government itself would like to access something? Do you believe they would still come to you seeking your permission?
  2. What if the central pool of all private information gets hacked? Does it make sense for an attacker to have access to all of the data?

You might differ, but for me, the answer to both of those questions is a huge ‘no’. The right to privacy gets thrown under the bus the moment everyone decides to collect their identities in a single pool that is owned and controlled by a single entity like a government.

How else can we look at the right to privacy?

My problem is not with pooling in the identities but with them being owned by a single entity. Be it a private organisation or the nation’s government itself, if anyone has direct access to the pool, the citizens do not have the right anymore.

How is it possible to collect identities without letting anyone maintain them it? In short —math.

I am a huge advocate of blockchain and predict that it will soon change our perception of society. Blockchain has the potential to reinforce the right to privacy in a manner that makes it possible to have all identities in a pool where an individual, and not the government, owns his/her identity. Math and cryptography make it possible to lock every identity using a different key, which is owned by the individual himself/herself.

Blockchain makes it possible to avoid the concept of a master key that unlocks all the identities.

Every time a third party needs to access your data, you’d have to allow them not just by nodding your head but by using cryptography. You’ll be able to fine-tune the granularity of the access granted and also revoke it altogether if you ever want to. That’s what the real right to privacy looks like.

Challenges?

Innovation is seldom without challenges. Sometimes the problems are technical and other times, philosophical. And when it comes to disrupting the nation’s single-largest authority — the government — challenges are inevitable.

More than a disruption in technology, blockchain is a disruption in economics. It allows several thousand strangers to coordinate with one another and work together using the power of money — not the money regulated by governments, however, but alternate money, thus, giving birth to an alternate, closed economy that competes directly with government on one particular use case.

The challenge won’t be that the government might ban it (a blockchain cannot be banned). The challenge will be with regard to adoption if the government opposes it. Human beings evolved over thousands of years by following the leaders, kings, and governments. We are habitual of following what our masters tell us to. This habit of ours, not the government, might become the problem.

Let's not lose hope, however. If enough people hold the fundamental right to privacy above the habit of following the masters, we’ll soon see a day where we will regain control over our identities.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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