In an age where fears of fake news and misinformation run high, folks are brainstorming ways to increase transparency regarding data and technology.
An increasing portion of the tech community believes the solution lies with blockchain technology, and Santa Barbara’s first ever Blockchain Summit, held Saturday at UCSB’s Corwin Pavilion, provided a platform where proponents and doubters shared their ideas.
What exactly is blockchain? It is a chain of cryptographically signed blocks of data, and each block represents individual transactions. The chain can be distributed across different linked computers and cannot be tampered with. Some describe blockchain as open source technology because it can be analyzed by any user whose access is not controlled by a central figure of authority.
Blockchain gained popularity after the global financial crisis exploded in 2008. People’s trust in banking institutions declined and cryptocurrencies began to be thought of as a way to avoid another financial crisis.
In the past decade, however, blockchain has been used beyond the cryptocurrency world. In Switzerland, a blockchain project is being used for voter registration. The Chilean government has begun using the technology in the energy sector, specifically regarding energy usage. Even border control may soon be using blockchain in the Netherlands. Proponents of blockchain believe that the open source nature of the technology will increase transparency of information in a society.
Julian Wheatland — who served as CEO, CFO and COO of the now defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica — reflected on how his former company could have benefited from this type of open source technology and ethical compliance.
“This whole question of ethical compliance is really underserved in terms of the way that we think about (how) businesses … manage technology. And we should put a lot more effort into coming up with a structure or structures that allow companies to set up their store, seen very clearly and publicly what their ethical position is, and then set up processes inside the company in order to adhere to that ethical position,” said Mr. Wheatland.
He continued that a degree of open source effort should be involved.
“I would probably take that a stage further,” said Mr. Wheatland. “And I would say, and then invite other people to audit those processes in order to provide reassurance to the outside world that those processes are being adhered to.”
But Mr. Wheatland drew a clear line between auditors and regulators.
“What I didn’t say was that the outside world should tell the company what it should do. The reason I didn’t say that is that there is a role for regulation framework and that should say what companies can and can’t do, but it’s only a framework,” said Mr. Wheatland. “Regulators will always be late to the party. They’ll always be regulating something that happened two years ago.”
Mr. Wheatland speaks from the experience of witnessing Cambridge Analytica face regulators for activities they conducted years prior.
In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into whether or not Facebook — whose users Cambridge Analytica was collecting information on — has violated privacy laws. The app “Thisisyourdigitallife,” through which the information was collected, however, was created in 2013, translating to a five-year period between the launch of the information-harvesting app and the launch of the investigation.
A short version of Cambridge Analytica’s history along with Mr. Wheatland’s roles in the company unfolded with the questions of blockchain journalist Rachel Wolfson, who interviewed the tech executive Saturday.
Equipped with hindsight, Mr. Wheatland outlined the importance of transparency, honesty and management beyond existing regulations.
“We ought to be able to see transparently what companies are doing with our data,” he said.
Mr. Wheatland also shared with the News-Press some tips for internet users concerned about their information’s safety.
One way to avoid sites from harvesting information is “using different browsers,” Mr. Wheatland told the News-Press. He was referring to the open-source browser Otter and Opera, which comes with a free virtual private network service that makes connections to websites more secure and difficult for websites to track users. Search engines like DuckDuckGo also aim to protect users’ privacy.
Mr. Wheatland did encourage that folks first analyze their level of concerns.
“There’s a generational difference,” said Mr. Wheatland. A group of university students, for example, may not have problems with sharing personal data to get relevant advertisements, while other age groups may not be as eager. Assessing the level of concern will help you determine which measures you are willing to take to protect information.
Another tip Mr. Wheatland shared with the News-Press was the use of a browser’s incognito mode, which is also referred to as private browsing. This mode, although not perfect, stops cookies (small pieces of data) from being stored on a user’s computer.
Clarification: The article previously described Opera as open-source.