Blockchain technology may be most widely known for its associations with cryptocurrency, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. What blockchain represents is the possibility of a complete overhaul of how we log everything from legal documents to the statements we make online. In a culture of unrest, as social media platforms come under increasing scrutiny about their handling of our personal data, the blockchain offers a possible solution for security, privacy and accountability that is sorely wanting.
What Is The Blockchain Anyway?
A public blockchain is a database that is maintained by thousands of people and companies simultaneously. All of these parties have a vested financial interest in keeping the same database up to date (i.e. they get paid for doing so). Every single one of these parties must agree on the contents of the database being identical. If they do not, they do not receive financial remuneration for their work. The information added to the system cannot be lost and it cannot be changed.
Every single bit of data has its own little ‘home’ on the blockchain. When a piece of data is added, the person adding it also adds a password which conclusively proves that they are the person that originally created that ‘block’. That block could contain, for example, your credit card number, email address, or phone number.
A kind of virtual notary, in the form of an independent identity service, verifies your ownership of your block. The identity service is unaffiliated with any company or platform, and will no nothing of where you go online after it has verified the data you’ve added to your block. It cannot track you, or unlock that data in any way. It simply verifies that it is you that created the block in the first place. As such, it cannot be tracked back to you and cannot be used as a marketing tool.
Basically, online identity is fragmented into two parts: verification, then using that verified identity to log in somewhere.
So how is it secure?
Afterwards, any time you log into a new website or buy something online, you use a plugin or app that proves your identity without allowing the service provider to see the actual information contained in the block, nor to store it. This differs from the whole ‘Log in with Twitter’ or ‘Log in with Facebook’ thing we have now, in that all that data stored about you on the social network isn’t then just forwarded on to the service provider whose site you’re logging into. Rather than trusting Facebook with your data, management of your identity is your own to handle, and you need not trust any other company or provider to see or handle it for you.
You may be wondering what happens if you lose your password. Well, the identity service provider that verified your identity can also offer you a ‘locker’ where your assets and credentials are stored under a password that can be easily reset if you lose it. This ‘locker’ can also be used as a kind of two-factor authentication for transactions that require it, such as big purchases. There are lots of different identity service providers, so there’s very little chance of a hacker who gets hold of your password also being able to guess which service provider your ‘locker number’ is with. No site or service will have access to that info.
Everything from your driving licence and passport number to your payment details or even your gym membership number can be hidden away in your personal, encrypted blockchain. Even if someone finds out your email address, they will no longer be able to use Facebook or some kind of credit rating agency to sniff out any other information about you. Right now, Facebook and other holders of your data have everything sitting there within easy reach, meaning your whole identity could be stolen at once. When your identity data is stored in the blockchain, this is not possible.
What’s more, a blockchain cannot disappear. It cannot go out of business, unlike Facebook which technically could disintegrate at some point, like MySpace before it. Because the blockchain is comprised of so many individuals and organisations, all with an interest in keeping it going, it will never die. Access and verification in the blockchain, once set up, can never be revoked, manipulated, or removed.
Blockchain and Virtual Worlds
The information I’ve given here, I learned from reading an article by Philip Rosedale, the guy behind High Fidelity (and Second Life before it). High Fidelity, just to fill you in, is a virtual reality universe being created by Rosedale, which he envisages as an evolution of the internet, in which people can play, shop, communicate with people from all over the world, learn and work in VR. It’s a bit like Ready Player One (without the dystopian element).
The High Fidelity platform is built on blockchain, and Rosedale sees it as a ripe opportunity to tie together our virtual identities with our real-life ones, to turn our online presence into a direct extension of our offline lives. Using blockchain, purchases you make in real life can be carried across to a virtual version within High Fidelity. For example, you buy a pair of sunglasses online and your avatar can wear them in VR.
Interestingly, Rosedale also sees it impacting marketing and advertising in a rather innovative way. In an interview with PSFK, he states:
“You might be at a concert and you might be told by the singer, “Oh, there’s a magic can of Coca‑Cola or something hidden in AR somewhere at the concert.” Once you find that can of Coca‑Cola with your app that you have on your phone, which is not High Fidelity, you’ll be able to take it, go into High Fidelity and stick it in the virtual world and still have all the ownership information about the fact that you own that can of Coca‑Cola, carrying it across between the AR world and the VR world.”
Why you’d want a virtual can of Coke, I don’t know. But it’s just an example. I imagine it could just as easily be a Ralph Lauren dress found at London Fashion Week, which looks as good on your avatar as it does on your flesh and blood body.
Rosedale’s vision seems at the same time both hopelessly idealistic and economically and commercially workable. But then, didn’t the internet itself start out on pretty idealistic roots? Time will tell if VR adoption will really become as ubiquitous as it would need to be to make High Fidelity a success, but if it were marketed right, it could be a huge opportunity to put right a lot of the wrongs we are currently seeing in the digital world. With a secure and powerful blockchain as the driving force behind it, we could be in for a brighter online future.
And even if we don’t end up marrying our real lives with our virtual ones to the extent that Rosedale hopes, by bringing the blockchain mainstream, we stand the chance of regaining control over our data and our identities. That’s something, I’m sure we can all agree, that needs urgent attention.