While the internet isn’t technically centralised, it is monolithic and monopolised in practice.
A handful of companies currently control most of the world’s personal data and, in most cases, we are ostensibly fine with this situation… or are we?
Driven largely by data privacy concerns, there is a growing chorus of entrepreneurs, experts, activists, and consumers starting to call for major changes.
Everywhere you look, trust in the Internet’s string-pulling behemoths is taking a hit due to a constant storm of hacks, technical mishaps, and operational intractability. People are getting disillusioned and consequently, an aspirational exodus toward more protected, transparent, and decentralised web options is gathering pace.
In many ways, decentralisation is already trundling into the mainstream, largely thanks to the fervour surrounding Bitcoin and a clutch of its lesser known cryptocurrencies. This is just the beginning too. We can confidently anticipate eye-catching and frenetic progress in the coming years as blockchain, the technology underpinning Bitcoin, continues to evolve.
New tech on the block
Blockchain is a global database functioning as an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions. It can be programmed to record not just financial transactions, but virtually anything of value. Intriguing use-cases are popping up all over, from food supply chain traceability to micropayments for media content. Many of the emerging concepts propose a dramatic shift in traditional approaches to transactions and businesses processes. It will simplify the Internet of Things (IoT), prompt a decentralised app design boom and, crucially, reinforce identity management capabilities.
Tech boffins, investors, and top-level decision-makers of every ilk are duly and intently monitoring the situation.
The father of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee, is one such observer and a firm believer that change is both necessary and on its way. Ultimately, he wants his creation to go back to what he originally intended – a decentralised platform with unfettered user freedom and watertight personal data controls. To help turn the tide, he recently founded SOLID, an open source project aiming to decentralise web applications, foster true data ownership, and improve privacy.
There’s also a hive of entrepreneurial activity starting to evince blockchain’s commercial viability. TraDove is shooting for a B2B blockchain payment network for international transactions, recently raising $53 million and fuelling corporate demand for cryptocurrencies for sales and marketing – a $76 billion market. In Japan, the ambitious PATRON has big expansion plans for its decentralised influencer-marketing platform set to eliminate inefficiencies in branded content and social media. Then there’s Celcius Network, a trailblazing borrowing and lending platform committed to introducing the next 100 million people to cryptocurrencies. There are many others and it is easy to see why excitement is building.
Curb your enthusiasm?
Beyond the headlines, however, there are still plenty of obstacles on the road to decentralised nirvana.
Firstly, mass adoption requires mass buy-in. It can be a slow process to get behind something new, particularly if it stems from a field prone to technical opacity. Having said that, consumers are tech-savvy and data conscious than ever before. Incidents like Cambridge Analytica illegally mining Facebook data for 2016 US presidential election advertising are already prompting many to explode the status quo.
Another potential impediment to user enthusiasm is speed, which is an enduring and well-known issue for decentralised apps. Without high-powered servers to keep latency at bay, there is always a looming buffer dread. Switching to a slower network is undoubtedly a tough sell but decentralisation acolytes believe the problem will be resolved soon. As the sentiment goes, lag is temporary. Disruption is permanent.
Even more complicated is the regulatory minefield ahead. Establishing data jurisdictions? Defining responsibilities for deleting and changing information on the blockchain? These are all lingering grey areas. Current legislative frameworks will buckle under the adaptive strain without consistent and focused industry input and governmental vision. Clearly, widespread change is needed to untangle mounting and unavoidable complexities.
In the long-term, it is important to note that a thriving blockchain-driven B2B marketplace or platform will require all stakeholders to develop and deliver applications and services that integrate in a safe, scalable, and reliable manner. In addition, it will necessitate the technical wherewithal to coordinate massive data flows and business processes, as well establish sustainable infrastructures for applications and a distributed network of connected things. Automation and orchestration tools and frameworks – most often associated with DevOps and open application programming interface (APIs) ecosystems – will be in high demand.
As ever, security remains a major concern. It isn’t the blockchain that’s getting hacked – it’s the things that surround it: payment systems, databases, and user credentials. Today’s cryptocurrency exchanges may be tomorrow’s banks, and you can bet somebody will try to rob them. Industry-wide, we must get better at boosting developers’ abilities to self-service provision and automate the network. We also need to ensure that security services are intimately integrated into the software development cycle.
The road ahead
Soaring demand for data security and transparency, combined with emerging business models built on blockchain technology, will only continue to cast all things decentralised in a positive light. Meanwhile, existing technical hitches will diminish over time due to inevitably improved processing technologies and the step changes required to comprehensively leverage the IoT. All businesses operating in the tech and data arena need to know the score, and carefully consider which investments can both meet, and pre-empt, shifting customer demands.
Earth 2050: memory chips for kids, telepathy for adults
An astonishing set of predictions for the next 30 years includes a major challenge to the privacy of our thoughts.
By 2050, most kids may be fitted with the latest memory boosting implants, and adults will have replaced mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought.
These are some of the more dramatic forecasts in Earth 2050, an award-winning, interactive multimedia project that accumulates predictions about social and technological developments for the upcoming 30 years. The aim is to identify global challenges for humanity and possible ways of solving these challenges. The website was launched in 2017 to mark Kaspersky Lab’s 20th birthday. It comprises a rich variety of predictions and future scenarios, covering a wide range of topics.
Recently a number of new contributions have been added to the site. Among them Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor at Cambridge University and former President of the Royal Society; investor and entrepreneur Steven Hoffman, Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, along withDmitry Galov, security researcher and Alexey Malanov, malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.
The new visions for 2050 consider, among other things:
- The replacement of mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought – able to upload skills and knowledge in return – and the impact of this on individual consciousness and privacy of thought.
- The ability to transform all life at the genetic level through gene editing.
- The potential impact of mistakes made by advanced machine-learning systems/AI.
- The demise of current political systems and the rise of ‘citizen governments’, where ordinary people are co-opted to approve legislation.
- The end of the techno-industrial age as the world runs out of fossil fuels, leading to economic and environmental devastation.
- The end of industrial-scale meat production, as most people become vegan and meat is cultured from biopsies taken from living, outdoor reared livestock.
The hypothetical prediction for 2050 from Dmitry Galov, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab is as follows: “By 2050, our knowledge of how the brain works, and our ability to enhance or repair it is so advanced that being able to remember everything and learn new things at an outrageous speed has become commonplace. Most kids are fitted with the latest memory boosting implants to support their learning and this makes education easier than it has ever been.
“Brain damage as a result of head injury is easily repaired; memory loss is no longer a medical condition, and people suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression, are quickly cured. The technologies that underpin this have existed in some form since the late 2010s. Memory implants are in fact a natural progression from the connected deep brain stimulation implants of 2018.
“But every technology has another side – a dark side. In 2050, the medical, social and economic impact of memory boosting implants are significant, but they are also vulnerable to exploitation and cyber-abuse. New threats that have appeared in the last decade include the mass manipulation of groups through implanted or erased memories of political events or conflicts, and even the creation of ‘human botnets’.
“These botnets connect people’s brains into a network of agents controlled and operated by cybercriminals, without the knowledge of the victims themselves. Repurposed cyberthreats from previous decades are targeting the memories of world leaders for cyber-espionage, as well as those of celebrities, ordinary people and businesses with the aim of memory theft, deletion of or ‘locking’ of memories (for example, in return for a ransom).
“This landscape is only possible because, in the late 2010s when the technologies began to evolve, the potential future security vulnerabilities were not considered a priority, and the various players: healthcare, security, policy makers and more, didn’t come together to understand and address future risks.”
For more information and the full suite of inspirational and thought-provoking predictions, visit Earth 2050.
How load-shedding is killing our cellphone signals
Extensive load-shedding, combined with the theft of cell tower backup batteries and copper wire, is placing a massive strain on mobile network providers.
MTN says the majority of MTN’S sites have been equipped with battery backup systems to ensure there is enough power on site to run the system for several hours when local power goes out and the mains go down.
“With power outages on the rise, these back-up systems become imperative to keeping South Africa connected and MTN has invested heavily in generators and backup batteries to maintain communication for customers, despite the lack of electrical power,” the operator said in a statement today.
However, according to Jacqui O’Sullivan, Executive: Corporate Affairs, at MTN SA, “The high frequency of the cycles of load shedding
An additional challenge is that criminals and criminal syndicates are placing networks across the country at risk. Batteries, which can cost R28 000 per battery and upwards, are sought after on black markets – especially in neighbouring countries.
“Although MTN has improved security and is making strides in limiting instances of theft and vandalism with the assistance of the police, the increase in power outages has made this issue even more pressing,” says O’Sullivan.
Ernest Paul, General Manager: Network Operations at SA’s leading network provider MTN, says the brazen theft of batteries is an industry-wide problem and will require a broader initiative driven by communities, the private sector, police and prosecutors to bring it to a halt.
“Apart from the cost of replacing the stolen batteries and upgrading the broken infrastructure, communities suffer as the network degrades without the back-up power. This is due to the fact that any coverage gaps need to be filled. The situation is even more dire with the rolling power cuts expected due to Eskom load shedding.”
Loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people. On hub sites, network coverage to entire suburbs and regions can be lost.
Click here to read more about efforts to combat copper theft.