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Web 3.0 and the return of privacy

blockchain influence on internet privacy and online identity

While the Internet has brought great benefits to society and the economy, it is no secret that it has some serious defects as well. A suite of new technologies, including blockchain, are laying the groundwork for a much needed upgrade and paving the way for Web 3.0 – a new, more secure, more user-centric Internet.

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Anyone old enough to remember life before the Internet became ubiquitous will be well aware of the many benefits it has brought. From email to ecommerce, social media to wikipedia, and countless other platforms and capabilities, this global network of networks has done immeasurable good in bringing people together, adding convenience to our lives, and fostering the collection and sharing of the world’s knowledge.

But recent discussions around data privacy and fake news, not to mention the almost daily revelations about hacks, data and identity theft, leave no doubt that today’s Internet has some serious defects as well. While the reasons behind this are complex, they generally boil down to two basic issues: one, the fact that the Internet as originally conceived and built has no native, built-in tools to clearly identify who the sender of information is; and two, that there is no native way to ensure that data has not been altered, copied or otherwise manipulated during transmission. 

As a result we have increasingly come to rely on third parties to make up for these deficiencies. Today it is not the Internet, but the social media platforms, search engines, e-commerce sites or financial institutions built on top of it, that provide us with our online identities, hold our personal data, and act as gatekeepers of information.

While effective on many levels, this ad hoc approach leaves much to be desired. Today’s Internet is an insecure environment in which individuals have little to no control over their personal data and identity, and which is riddled with redundant processes (as we all know every time we have to register on yet another website). It is also an environment where the tremendous value inherent in the information that we contribute to it is increasingly concentrated in the hands of those few companies that control the major data platforms.

The good news is that it need not be this way much longer. A number of important developments in both hardware and software, including the advent of blockchain technology, are laying the groundwork for what is increasingly being referred to as Web 3.0 – a major upgrade of the Internet based on core principles of  security, identity, trust and user control.

The ingredients for a new World Wide Web
The most important development on the hardware side will be familiar to most of us. Today’s smartphones are not only ubiquitous, they can provide extremely secure “data enclaves”, giving individuals a powerful infrastructure for controlling their own data.

On the software side, there are two main developments of note. 

One is the advent of blockchain. Still best known as the technology behind Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain also represents a major innovation in database technology, allowing large groups of strangers to share trusted data and exchange value on the Internet with high confidence in the integrity of the information and without the need for third-party intermediaries. It is currently being explored and implemented by innumerable startups, major corporations and even governments looking to increase the security, efficiency and reach of their online platforms.

The other is the imminent arrival of a number of new privacy-preserving cryptographic and computational techniques that will allow for exponential improvements in how we secure but also share data. These include things like zero-knowledge proofs and homomorphic encryption that allow people to among other things make mathematically provable claims about information without actually revealing that information.

Welcome to Web 3.0
While these new privacy-preserving technologies are extremely sophisticated and difficult to comprehend – indeed, they can seem magical to all but the most highly trained experts – they can be combined with blockchain to create new kinds of online capabilities and platforms whose benefits to end users and businesses are quite clear.

For example, they can enable new forms of decentralised identity (DI), including an important subset known as self-sovereign identity (SSI). Under the decentralised identity paradigm, users maintain and control personal data themselves as opposed to relying on third parties. In future, instead of providing your personal data over and over again on each platform you sign up for, you will instead simply authorise the platforms to use your data. If something changes, like your address or credit card number, you need only change it once on your end, and all your sites will be updated. This will make the Web much more user friendly. Thanks to the technology, both your identity and that of the platform will be easily verifiable, which will go a long way to mitigating identity theft and the use of false identities to commit fraud or spread propaganda.

We can also combine these technologies to create a far more trustworthy Internet than the one we have now, allowing us to easily track the source and lifecycle of information much the same way we track the source and lifecycle of life-critical items like food and medicine. 

These technologies can also help us square the circle between online privacy and transparency, allowing society to gain the collective benefits of big data, including in such crucial areas as national security, fighting financial crime or curing disease, while preserving the privacy and rights of honest individuals. In a decentralised, secure Web, individuals will also increasingly have the opportunity to monetise their private data if they wish, instead of unknowingly handing over the value of their personal information to third party platforms, as is the case today.

There will be other benefits as well, many of which have probably not been conceived of yet. And, as with any significant shift in technological paradigm, it will take time for them to be realised, and there will be new risks that will arise and have to be mitigated.

But the trend is clear. While the Internet has truly been a revolution in how we communicate, it can also be a frightening and insecure place. As Web 3.0 becomes a reality, our online lives will become more safe, more secure, and perhaps even more profitable