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How to reclaim identity in virtual world

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We’re bringing information and devices online at an unprecedented rate, raising one of the fundamental questions of our time: how do we represent ourselves in this digital world that we are creating? And more importantly, how do we secure our identity in a digital world? We’ve heard about blockchain for currencies and smart contracts, a compelling and crucial application is in securing online identity.

SAP Africa’s Head of Innovation and South Africa’s Mars One candidate, Dr Adriana Marais, talks about taking back ownership of our identities in the digital world, through the application of blockchain.

For four billion years, the genetic code has been life’s data store- containing not only instructions for but also the lineage of all terrestrial life. Over the past few hundred thousand years, a new species has emerged, one that is rapidly and inexhaustibly producing huge volumes of data of their own: humans.

A brief history of humanity’s data affair

We have observed the world and made sense of it through language for as long as we’ve existed. Armed with the technologies we developed, we peered inside atoms and learned something about the behaviour of the fundamental particles including electrons and photons that we have found there. Developing capabilities to manipulate collections of these units of electricity and light has led to a series of technological revolutions that has had a fundamental impact on how we store, analyse and communicate information about our world.

The network of networks, the Internet, has evolved over time from a range of contributing developments by mathematicians, scientists and engineers. In each decade from the 1940s inventions included the transistor, the computer, computer networks, remote access to computing power, software and documents, and finally by the mid-1990s, commercial service providers ensured increasingly global connectivity. Near-instant text and audio-visual communication, and the emergence of social media and online services across industries, have vastly transformed our society in a remarkably short space of time.

The benefits of increased connectivity come with the associated risk around how the information that we create, communicate and store can be intercepted, sometimes with malicious intent. Cryptography is the ancient art of achieving confidentiality by transforming a message such that is only intelligible to someone in possession of a key. Since the emergence of the Internet, a multitude of algorithms for data security have been developed, and global standards for encryption protocols provide some level of communications security over our computer networks.

Just months after the financial crash of 2008, the first digital currency to employ cryptography to solve the problem of double-spending without the requirement for a central trusted third party was proposed. That currency was Bitcoin, now valued at over USD 100 billion, and one of over 1000 different crypto-currencies. The technology underlying this decentralised capability is a distributed ledger, or blockchain. Transactions are recorded in blocks that are linked and secured by cryptography, these records are verified and stored across a network making the ledger resistant to modification.

The really interesting part is that blockchain, this combination of capabilities in computing, connectivity and cryptography, has applications not only in the financial world, but in any transactional environment, including for a decentralised personal data management system that ensures users own and control their data.

Ups and downs: the risks of exponential data

As of this year, the digital world’s data content is estimated at billions of terabytes, or zettabytes, 90% of which has been created since 2016. Information is an increasingly valuable commodity, and its acquisition, analysis and trade plays an important role across industries. And with one quarter of the world’s population using Facebook every month in 2017, a lot of this data is personal.

The rise of social media has led to new conceptualisations and discussions around identity, as we build representations of ourselves online. On the other hand, information about ourselves that we did not intend to be shared or distributed is also contributing to our digital profiles. Any organisation with stores of personal data can be hacked, be negligent, or even sell this data to external parties for profit, resulting in outcomes that range from spam to identity theft.

In 2013 and 2014, three billion Yahoo! accounts were hacked in what was the highest-profile digital identity breach at the time. In South Africa, more than 30 million identity numbers and other associated financial information was leaked online only last year. Regulators have been swift in their response: personal data protection regulations such as the European GDPR or South African POPI Act carry severe penalties to companies who act recklessly or even negligently with personal data.

Stunning revelations surrounding Facebook’s sharing of up to 87 million members’ data to a third party in the service of the last US presidential election has caused shockwaves across the world, wiping $100-billion off its market capitalisation and leading some analysts to speculate around fines that could amount to $2-trillion – 100 times larger than the biggest corporate fine in history.

One definition of personal data is an economic asset generated by the identities and behaviours of individuals, and the monetisation potential of its (mis)use is astounding. Services like messaging, search and navigation may appear free to use, but they actually come at a cost: your personal data, or perhaps more aptly called your consumer data. Because as has been said, if you’re not paying, you’re not the customer; you’re the product. The question of how to verify, secure and manage identity and personal data online is more pertinent today than ever before.

The strongest link in the (block)chain

Identification provides a foundation for human rights. An estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide cannot officially prove their identity, and we simply don’t know how many of the world’s more than 200 million migrants, 21.3 million refugees, or 10 million stateless persons have some form of identification. The World Bank estimates that 78% of these unidentified people are from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

The recent Blockchain Africa Conference in Johannesburg brought together like-minded innovators. Global Consent, based in Cape Town, is one such local player doing exciting things in the identity space. Consent is developing a blockchain-based trust protocol to independently authenticate identity and selectively exchange personal information. Consent is also the first Sovrin steward in Africa. Sovrin is the world’s first publicly available distributed ledger dedicated to digital identity. The code base of Sovrin is part of the open source Hyperledger project, which is governed by the Linux Foundation and backed by corporates including SAP, IBM, NTT and Intel. The infrastructure for ensuring consensus, security and trust around identity transactions on the Sovrin network is provided by globally distributed stewards like Consent, who independently own and operate nodes on the network.

Blockchain has impressive applications in a transactional environment, in this context enabling individuals to own and control their identities online in a decentralised personal data management system where records are verified and stored across a network making the ledger resistant to modification. Like any network, the strength of a blockchain-enabled personal data management system depends in part on its size. And given the size of the problem of personal identification in Africa, both online and off, we can look forward to ongoing discussion and adoption of technologies like blockchain to meet this challenge going forward.

So… Developments in computing, connectivity and cryptography, have resulted in blockchain, the technological confluence of the three, with exciting applications in identification and securing personal data online. However, we live in the physical world, and biometric data will need to support the initial registration of an individual on such a system. A candidate for advanced biometric identity verification is a naturally occurring structure, which could also be the future of data storage, with a remarkable 700 terabyte capacity per gram- the ultimate unique identifier.

This structure is the DNA molecule, and despite significant achievements like determining its structure and sequence, science continues to grapple with the computational complexity of understanding life. The role of large portions of determined sequences remain a complete mystery. Life, and in particular humanity, is arguably the most mysterious phenomenon we have ever encountered, and we have a long way to go in terms of fully understanding ourselves. One thing we have arrived at, is a solution to taking back ownership of our identities in the digital world we are creating, through the compelling application of blockchain in the digital identity space.

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Millennials turning 40: NOW will you stop targeting them?

It’s one of the most overused terms in youth marketing, and probably the most inaccurate, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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One of the most irritating buzzwords embraced by marketers in recent years is the term “millennial”. Most are clueless about its true meaning, and use it as a supposedly cool synonym for “young adults”. The flaw in this targeting – and the word “flaw” here is like calling the Grand Canyon a trench – is that it utterly ignores the meaning of the term. “Millennials” are formally defined as anyone born from 1980 to 2000, meaning they have typically come of age after the dawn of the millennium, or during the 21st century.

Think about that for a moment. Next year, the millennial will be formally defined as anyone aged from 20 to 40. So here you have an entire advertising, marketing and public relations industry hanging onto a cool definition, while in effect arguing that 40-year-olds are youths who want the same thing as newly-minted university graduates or job entrants.

When the communications industry discovers just how embarrassing its glib use of the term really is, it will no doubt pivot – millennial-speak for “changing your business model when it proves to be a disaster, but you still appear to be cool” – to the next big thing in generational theory.

That next big thing is currently Generation Z, or people born after the turn of the century. It’s very convenient to lump them all together and claim they have a different set of values and expectations to those who went before. Allegedly, they are engaged in a quest for experience, compared to millennials – the 19-year-olds and 39-olds alike – supposedly all on a quest for relevance.

In reality, all are part of Generation #, latching onto the latest hashtag trend that sweeps social media, desperate to go viral if they are producers of social content, desperate to have caught onto the trend before their peers.

The irony is that marketers’ quest for cutting edge target markets is, in reality, a hangover from the days when there was no such thing as generational theory, and marketing was all about clearly defined target markets. In the era of big data and mass personalization, that idea seems rather quaint.

Indeed, according to Grant Lapping, managing director of DataCore Media, it no longer matters who brands think their target market is.

“The reason for this is simple: with the technology and data digital marketers have access to today, we no longer need to limit our potential target audience to a set of personas or segments derived through customer research. While this type of customer segmentation was – and remains – important for engagements across traditional above-the-line engagements in mass media, digital marketing gives us the tools we need to target customers on a far more granular and personalised level.

“Where customer research gives us an indication of who the audience is, data can tell us exactly what they want and how they may behave.”

Netflix, he points out, is an example of a company that is changing its industry by avoiding audience segmentation, once the holy grail of entertainment.

In other words, it understands that 20-year-olds and 40-year-olds are very different – but so is everyone in between.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Robots coming to IFA

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Robotics is no longer about mechanical humanoids, but rather becoming an interface between man and machine. That is a key message being delivered at next month’s IFA consumer electronics expo in Berlin. An entire hall will be devoted to IFA Next, which will not only offer a look into the future, but also show what form it will take.

The concepts are as varied as the exhibitors themselves. However, there are similarities in the various products, some more human than others, in the fascinating ways in which they establish a link between fun, learning and programming. In many cases, they are aimed at children and young people.

The following will be among the exhibitors making Hall 26 a must-visit:

Leju Robotics (Stand 115) from China is featuring what we all imagine a robot to be. The bipedal Aelos 1s can walk, dance and play football. And in carrying out all these actions it responds to spoken commands. But it also challenges young researchers to apply their creativity in programming it and teaching it new actions. And conversely, it also imparts scholastic knowledge.

Cubroid (Stand 231, KIRIA) from Korea starts off by promoting an independent approach to the way it deals with tasks. Multi-functional cubes, glowing as they play music, or equipped with a tiny rotating motor, join together like Lego pieces. Configuration and programming are thus combined, providing a basic idea of what constitutes artificial intelligence.

Spain is represented by Ebotics (Stand 218). This company is presenting an entire portfolio of building components, including the “Mint” educational program. The modular system explains about modern construction, programming and the entire field of robotics.

Elematec Corporation (Stand 208) from Japan is presenting the two-armed SCARA, which is not intended to deal with any tasks, but in particular to assist people with their work.

Everybot (Stand 231, KIRIA) from Japan approaches the concept of robotics by introducing an autonomous floor-cleaning machine, similar to a robot vacuum cleaner.

And Segway (Stand 222) is using a number of products to explain the modern approach to battery-powered locomotion.

IFA will take place at the Berlin Exhibition Grounds (ExpoCenter City) from 6 to 11 September 2019. For more information, visit www.ifa-berlin.com

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