Could Blockchain Lead to a Surveillance State?


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With facial recognition technology becoming the norm and data being sold to the highest bidder, blockchain technology could be on its way to being a major player in the creation of a surveillance state.

Tech Trends

A quick look at cinema headlines from the last decade will show an interesting and popular trope. Robots will soon take over the world – either on its own or as a tool utilized by an oppressive government.

The premise is an enticing one as it appeals to the natural human fear of the unknown as well as the unpredictable nature of technology. Just as media in the 1940s predicted flying cars, media now is obsessed with the idea of technology eventually contributing to our downfall, which, with any luck, is still a far cry away from being realized.

There is, however, some variety in the type of technology that will supposedly lead to humankind’s downfall. Artificial Intelligence is a favorite scapegoat and so is alien technology as it gives both the filmmaker and the viewer an opportunity to project their deepest fears onto a supposedly limitless power. 

Another technology could be used to create the dystopian future we fear and obsess over. Blockchain often makes headlines for the rise and crash of its cryptocurrency applications, but alternative use cases paint a slightly different picture.

However, one application of blockchain that has not been fully explored but could have potentially dangerous consequences is that of surveillance.

Dangerous Applications

Blockchain technology operates by creating a permanent and secure ledger of transactions, whether they are financial transactions, messages, the issuing of documents, and so on. This has made it a favorite for industries and firms that need to keep permanent ledgers of transactions as well as ensuring the credibility of various items such as educational credentials, collectible items, and precious metals.

One way that blockchain could be used that is not quite mainstream presently is for surveillance purposes. As the world is more security conscious than ever, the tracking of individual data is gaining much more ground with technology such as facial recognition, as well as fingerprint and retina scanning to name a few technologies.

Countries have created databases of individuals who live and travel across their borders, and a possible application of blockchain technology will be to create an irrefutable ledger that would ensure that such data is never tampered with. This could also be applied to things such as residential addresses and other personal information of citizens.

While the immediate response to this would be that it would increase security and make government services more efficient, there is the possibility of misusing such technology, as has been seen in the past.

Keeping Track

There has always been a carefully guarded border between the government managing data to sustain itself and its citizens safe and intruding on their right to privacy. This narrative has led to complex debate and controversies such as the case with Edward Snowden for his leaking of classified data in 2013 which revealed that the United States has been spying on its citizens during his time at the Central Intelligence Agency.  

When these revelations first came out, there were a number of arguments made both in support and against what the government had been doing. Some felt as though the government was merely doing its job by collecting data in order to aid investigations and ensure the security of the nation itself, while others felt as though they were intruding on the privacy of citizens and that the government having such unchecked power could lead to chaos in the future.

Another narrative that surrounded that controversy was that people have grown more and more aware that the government has been spying on them.

This same narrative surrounded the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 when it was revealed that Facebook had been selling user data. Many felt as though such a powerful corporation having access to user data would inevitably lead to some level of misconduct but were outraged to learn about how blatant the surveillance had been.

Perhaps it is the desensitization of the subject as a result of modern media and the prevalence of conspiracy theories, but there appears to be a certain apathy towards how users’ data and information is being used by those in positions of power.

What Could Blockchain Do?

Recently, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban the use of facial-recognition technology by government officials.

Such technology scans the faces of individuals, whether in private or public spaces and searches them against databases to determine their identity and other information regarding them. This has also been used for private home security cameras but has become rather controversial as they have been reported to unlawfully spy on individuals and keep their records, even when they are not a threat.

One can only imagine what would happen should blockchain be implemented in such a system, resulting in a permanent ledger of all individual data be kept through which facial recognition technology can be mapped against. It will be assumed that most individuals would be outraged by the thought of the government knowing literally everything about them and keeping a record of that information at all times.

However, the recent actions of the populace show that society is hugely desensitized to this idea as people continue to install facial recognition cameras in their home for security purposes, and also continue to make use of social media platforms that they know are collecting their data.

Blockchain and cryptocurrency were founded on an idea of individuals having more control over their own lives, and this also includes their data. Should it then be co-opted to be used for mass tracking of individual data, it could spell the end of modern definitions of privacy.

The Snowden leaks, the Cambridge Analytica debacle, and recent reports are pointing towards a gross and unchecked level of surveillance from both the private and public sector.

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