The Privacy Evolution- Building Apps on a Foundation of Privacy

12/27/2017 04:29 pm ET

Over the next year, we will be posting 1 article a month with guest writers in the blockchain and crypto community that dive in to both high level and deep concepts. This article marks the first of our Blockchain Series. (Disclosure- LOOMIA and Storj are partners for LOOMIA’s Tile platform.)

By Shawn Wilkinson, Storj Labs Cofounder and Chief Strategy Officer

The past year has been a monumental year for privacy. With the internet being incorporated into nearly every aspect of our lives, and Americans spending 5.6 hours online a day across mobile, desktop and other devices, people are much more connected than they were even five years ago.

Massive cloud companies have simplified our lives with easy-to-use services like Google Docs, Facebook, and a smorgasbord of messaging and communications tools. Steve Jobs’ vision of “an app for that” becomes more visualized every single day. However, the simplicity these apps bring into our lives is not completely altruistic. Many of these apps sacrifice privacy for service, as online advertising revenues reached $72.5 B in 2016.

A decade of security breaches that have compromised the information of millions (if not billions of people) culminated with Equifax leaking the social security numbers and other personal identifying details of nearly every American, in what has been called the worst breach in history. Advocates and experts are now calling for an overhaul of the system, some even citing blockchain tech as a possible solution.

Cloud companies often claim they are trustworthy data handlers, however their actions do not always follow their words. One example that touches close to home for our team at Storj Labs is the recent Google Docs lock-out that impacted thousands of people who trust Google to house all their personal and work files.

This Google glitch impacted our team at Storj Labs directly. Our community team has been using Google docs to create a document called “Bounty Program,” which rewards developers for contributing to our open source project for the Storj Labs network. Our team had dedicated considerable resources to build the document, which is why we were so shocked to find it blocked for violating Google’s terms of service. We suspect the word “bounty” is what triggered the file to be locked, however if Google’s AI is scanning files, it’s not too difficult to see how that power could be abused to snuff out ideas, eliminate competition or spy on sensitive materials. Shortly after, our access to the file was reinstated; however, it was a bit of a realization into the access Google has to the files stored on its network.

Another high-profile issue around privacy and encryption is the momentus Apple vs. FBI case from 2016. The FBI had recovered the San Bernardino shooters’ iPhone and was eager to unlock the device with help from Apple. Apple refused to comply, which drove the FBI to take the phone maker to court over the matter. With tech companies rallying in support of Apple, one important argument was overlooked. Apple did have the ability to unlock this private data, and while it refused, a much more consumer-friendly approach would be for Apple to make it impossible for it to access this data through encryption at a foundational level.

Many of us have conceded that our privacy must be traded for service; however, companies that can incorporate privacy at the foundational level through end-to-end encryption and other tactics have a chance to differentiate and capture market share - and billions of dollars in revenue in the process. Privacy as a differentiator is something that has primarily been limited to companies specializing in cybersecurity. However, with privacy becoming a central, recurring theme in the modern data era, we are not far from the point that everyday consumers are taking measures to protect themselves.

By encrypting data, user information cannot be accessed by anyone who does not have the private keys. This is a huge passion of mine and the centerpiece of my team’s work at Storj Labs - creating a decentralized cloud storage network where privacy is of the utmost importance and encryption is incorporated at the foundational layer. Even with privacy on the line and so many breaches making massive headlines, companies still forgo encryption because it’s deemed difficult, viewed as costly (when you encrypt data it cannot be compressed, therefore increasing costs, and requires extra milliseconds to decrypt) and often an afterthought.

Companies that can overcome the hurdles of encryption, privacy and security by simplifying the process for users of all level can win big - especially as large data breaches keep big players busy. While it will be difficult for 2018 to deliver bigger breaches than Equifax, I have no doubts the continuing trend of cybersecurity breaches will continue. And in the wake of the mess they create, new companies will carve out new opportunities to build on top of the rubble.

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