Don’t Demonize Bitcoin, Blockchain, Tor And Other Online Privacy Tools

By Steven Titch

“Can bitcoin be used for good?” read the headline of an April article in The Atlantic.

It’s not just a headline writer’s attempt at provocative rhetoric. The phrases “darkest corners of the web” and “illicit transactions” appear in paragraphs 1 and 2, respectively.

The implication, of course, is that bitcoin was created to facilitate illegal transactions over the internet. Only midway through does the article begin to discuss potential benefits of the cryptocurrency. The negative slant is indicative of the attitude the mainstream media are taking in general to technologies than anonymize users—as if the desire for privacy itself indicates ulterior motives.

We have seen similar treatment of other online privacy tools, such as the Tor browser, which media and law enforcement never miss a chance to associate with child pornography. On the other hand, very little is reported about Tor’s importance in circumventing internet filters and firewalls set up by the world’s repressive governments.

Yet in the larger scheme, anonymizing technologies like these will be important countermeasures for safeguarding privacy, as underlying internet technology allows small bits of personal information spread across countless databases to be searched, collected and analyzed cheaply and instantaneously.

Individuals today are asked to provide greater amounts of personal information just to navigate the routine aspects of daily life. This isn’t simply social networking and search applications; whether it’s banking, credit cards, purchasing (online and off), health insurance, travel, school enrollment or any one of dozens of other daily interactions, governments and institutions are requesting—demanding—more of your personal information for the privilege of doing business. There’s no opt-out.

Right now, as you’re reading this, think of how much of your daily activities third parties have recorded and documented. How much water did you use to shower, shave and brush your teeth? Metered and documented. Did you ride public transportation? Your fare card reported where you got on and where you got off. Surveillance cameras recorded you boarding a specific bus or subway car. Did you drive to work? The EZ pay toll and traffic cams can show the route you took. That coffee and doughnut purchase paid by debit card? Documented and searchable. That cigarette you smoked midmorning outside the building? Security cameras recorded it. Every site you visited, whether on your phone, tablet, home or work PC—logged and documented in the cloud.

None of this information is within your control. It is not your property and, as of now, your rights to correct, edit or delete it are extremely limited. Any of it, at any time, can be used against you.

Today, the bulk of information collected is used for marketing purposes. It’s not all bad. Amazon will remember that great pair of running shoes you bought, so you can purchase them again when you need to. Google can tailor news for you based on what its algorithms discern as your interests. As the “internet of things” takes shape, intelligent systems will be able to crunch massive amounts of data to make traffic flow better; to help businesses manage inventories, supply chains and transactions faster, quicker and more securely. That means less wasted resources, including fossil fuels. It means shorter lines at the checkout counter (or no checkout counter at all) and reduced chances of small mistakes that can have huge consequences, such as an error on medical records.

But just because there are social benefits to sharing some personal information doesn’t mean there are greater social benefits to sharing all information. This is what makes the oft-heard claim that information gathering shouldn’t bother those with “nothing to hide” so infuriating. Privacy is not about keeping secrets. Privacy is about the individual right to set personal boundaries. Legally, this idea is implicit in the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments. To put it more mundanely, I have no obligation to notify the world every time I buy a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread.

So, yes, bitcoin can be used for good. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a form of digital cash that can be exchanged online for goods and services. It is accepted by a growing number of merchants, including Overstock.com, Apple’s iTunes, Virgin Galactic and MGM Resorts (a good list is here). Unlike conventional currencies, transfers do not need to go through a third-party payment system, like a debit or credit card transaction does. This eliminates the cost of that transaction. The protocol that underlies bitcoin, known as blockchain, allows both anonymity and verification, two factors often thought to be mutually exclusive in e-commerce.

Blockchain itself may be the most significant development in safeguarding online privacy. Although the processes involved are complex, it essentially creates a method of secure data authentication independent of personal identification. This could make it ideal for networked device applications by allowing extensive database interaction to analyze dynamic real-time situations without compromising identifiable individuals. That is, unless government interference ruins it. Unsurprisingly, Russia and China are promoting an international effort to regulate the use of blockchain.

As for Tor, an FBI sting—aided by a hyperventilating media—damaged its reputation by associating Tor with child pornography in the public mind. In the sting, which itself raised ethical questions, the FBI for one week kept a seized child porn site online and publishing in order to gather web addresses of its users. The site was part of the so-called “dark web,” accessible only through open-source browsers such as Tor (proprietary browsers such as Chrome, Bing, Explorer and Safari won’t index dark websites). Tor, short for The Onion Router, was created by volunteer programmers and is designed to route browser inquiries through a large number of nodes, making it difficult to trace the IP address and location of the user.

In addition to child porn, the dark web is known for supporting other criminal transactions such as arms purchasing and drug trafficking. Former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron raised the thought of banning Tor, and Tor and its defenders regularly battle false reports that its use is illegal.

But Tor serves a vital function by allowing individuals to access websites, exchange emails and post video and photos while retaining a high degree of anonymity. (Tor isn’t completely secure in this regard). While for Americans that might mean fewer targeted web ads, for someone in China, Iran or Saudi Arabia, it means there will be no 3 a.m. knock on the door.

Moreover, Tor’s role in propagating child porn likely is overstated. The U.K. Parliament’s Office of Science and Technology cited a U.K. National Crime Agency’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) finding that Tor hidden services plays “only a minor role in the online viewing and distribution of indecent images of children.”

Anonymity tools themselves are a marketplace response to public perception of a lack of internet security. Just last week, Yahoo reported that information in 1 billion customer accounts may have been hacked and compromised. Most of this year’s presidential candidates, including President-elect Donald Trump, supported the FBI’s demand that Apple employees be forcibly deputized to unlock the cellphone used by the San Bernardino attackers. Despite debating it for several years, Congress still hasn’t extended constitutional due process protections to personal information stored in the cloud, even though users rely on web-based storage for app functionality across devices and protection against loss due to a local hard drive failure.

If the internet of things is to succeed, consumers must be confident that the information they share will be anonymized as a matter of course. When that is unfeasible, they must have utmost confidence that their data won’t be shared improperly or used against them. Anonymizing tools should not be banned or demonized because the government—or industry—can’t or won’t meet a desired level of security. That will not solve the problem. It will only kill the internet of things. And, frankly, if information security isn’t an option, internet of things development will suffer.

Image by Zapp2Photo

Originally posted by R Street

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