Privacy is at a premium today. While you navigate through your favorite applications, business invoices, or idle web surfing, the veiled apparatus of tracking and monetizing your data continues to churn away in the background.
Privacy intrusions on the modern web take several forms, with some more egregious violators of user data than others. However, it is only over the last decade, following a string of high-profile hacks and data abuses has the issue come to light with force.
Facebook was exposed for selling user data to the highest bidder. Google hauls in billions of cash piggybacking on intrusive ads that eerily display products similar to your search history only the day before. And massive data hacks, like Marriot and Equifax, help to crystallize the picture that centralized data models of the past are little more than honeypots for hackers and lucrative income streams for tech corporations — all at the expense of the user.
However, that dynamic is rapidly changing, and it draws its roots from grassroots movements that emerged decades ago. Campaigns that are now more powerful than ever.
Distribute the Web
The privacy debate is nothing new.
Concerns over digital privacy gave birth to the cypherpunks, an esoteric group of cryptography enthusiasts and privacy activists emerging in the 1980s. Some of its core members, such as David Chaum, pioneered some of the earliest tools for preserving digital privacy (e.g., mixnets) that have sparked broader movements of enthusiasts who iterate and develop the privacy technologies further.
Ironically, one of these early grassroots projects that have been building momentum for decades, Tor Browser, was actually invented by the US Naval Research Department for protecting political dissidents in oppressive foreign countries. Now, Tor Browser is commonly recognized as the gateway to the “Dark Web” and consists of thousands of volunteer node operators, developers, and other privacy activists.
The sentiment that drives digital privacy initiatives like Tor has carried over into other projects as well. Cryptocurrencies preserve financial privacy, boutique online services offer to erase exposed personal data, technologies once considered pipe dreams are coming to fruition (e.g., sMPCs), and cryptography has hit a golden age with the likes of zero-knowledge proofs, ring signatures, and more.
The common thread shared between the grassroots privacy movement of today hinges on a specific notion — decentralization. Sever the trust of centralized data models.
A cursory glance at some of the largest data hacks and abuses of web privacy today reveals an inextricable link to the centralization of data. For example, bank security systems exist in “walled gardens” that rely on secure moats around customer data. However, once the walls are breached, a hacker can abscond with a wealth of sensitive information.
Data centralization is also the reason behind the string of cryptocurrency hacks, which aren’t actual attacks on the coins themselves in most instances, but the centralized exchanges that store user funds.
The same problem is the crux of the entire web advertising paradigm today, where agencies leverage data insights from major platforms like Facebook and Google that enclose troves of user data on their servers from which they extract value. There’s a reason Facebook is free — you are the product.
From a financial perspective, Google and Facebook are simply advertising companies — and lucrative ones, to say the least.
It was only natural that developers and privacy advocates would collide with the power of open-source technology and the Linux world, which has snowballed into the contemporary privacy movement’s calling card — distribute the web. In the process, users can retain control over their digital trail and preserve their privacy.
Recently, a spark ignited the swelling support grassroots privacy movements, and it came from an anonymous white paper issued to a cypherpunk mailing list in 2008 penned by Satoshi Nakamoto.
Cryptocurrencies Were The Jet Fuel
Of all the forms of digital privacy, financial privacy may be the most important. It’s why Facebook’s Libra proposal was met with enmity from both Congress and the public, and the Overton Window for a digital dollar is widening.
Nobody wants their financial data commingled with social media interactions and geo-tracking apps. For example, despite Venmo’s popularity, the idea itself is fairly ridiculous — deliberately posting financial transfers in a social media style setting. That trend is unlikely to continue, however.
Otherwise, Western countries will have their own analogs of China’s WeChat super app that doubles as an Orwellian surveillance jackpot.
While the concept of financial privacy has largely been glossed over by the public for decades, bitcoin ignited the flash that has bolstered the resolve of both cryptography developers and grassroots privacy movements. Once a pseudonymous cryptocurrency crafted by an anonymous persona hit mainstream headlines with a skyrocketing market cap, people began to take notice, and understand the importance of financial privacy.
And the results have been nothing short of compelling.
In the cryptocurrency worldd alone, the rise of privacy-oriented cryptocurrencies like ZCash spearheaded a race towards unleashing the potential of zero-knowledge proofs (ZKPs) — sometimes known as “crypto magic.” Essentially, the technology enables one party to prove to another party that they know the value of some variable X (e.g., whether or not an anonymous transaction is valid) without conveying any other information.
It’s like being able to mathematically prove a statement without actually saying anything else than that the statement is true.
ZCash uses a cryptographic primitive of ZKPs known as “zk-SNARKs,” but the broader exploration of the technology has exploded. For example, recent breakthroughs, like bulletproofs, make zk-SNARKs much more efficient and practical to use within a financial network.
Some cryptocurrencies, like ZANO, have even taken the notion of privacy a step further, smashing together developments like CryptoNote’s (CN) Ring Signatures, a way of masking transaction details, with P2P escrow functionality for e-commerce applications using multi-sig technology. ZANO is actually an evolution of the CryptoNote Technology suite, written by the same developer that wrote the original CN code, an open-source privacy library that has spurred further grassroots movements itself.
The people behind these movements have transitioned from other industries. They are driven by ideological preferences and stand in stark contrast to your average open-source initiative. The movement is no longer limited to hobbyists and cryptographers conversing on mailing lists. It encompasses demographics of all backgrounds trying to revamp the Internet and meet the privacy demands of a new web.
The cryptographic tinkering fomented by bitcoin and its related industry has served as the jet fuel for the broader transition to P2P (i.e., distributed) technologies. These include a burgeoning class of projects like secure, private communication (e.g., Signal), distributed storage such as IPFS, and even the continued success of older file sharing protocols like BitTorrent.
The goal? Flatten the topology of the web.
A new generation of privacy projects draws from the grassroots movements that have been toiling away behind the scenes since the 1980s. Now, with bitcoin as the flag-bearer that took their promise mainstream, a vision of a distributed web has prompted the pursuit of a wholesale departure from the myriad problems stemming from centralization.
The new goal is to distribute the web. The modern privacy proponents are bolstered by thriving grassroots movements that would make even cypherpunks blush and are a formidable threat to the centralized data hegemony of today.