Burn the witch

There have been 200 executions at Lancaster Castle.

And of those 200, Edward “Old Ned” Barlow carried out 131.

Old Ned was an inmate himself. He’d been sent down for stealing a horse – a crime punishable by death. But he had his sentence commuted to ten years, on condition that he carried out the castle’s hangings and floggings.

Old Ned never did outlive his sentence and died within the castle walls on 9 December 1812.

And as strange as Old Ned’s story is, it’s far from the most famous to come out of Lancaster Castle.

That award would have to go to the Pendle Witches, who were tried before Old Ned’s time.

Illustration by John Gilbert from the 1854 edition of William Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches

The Pendle witch trials took place in 1612. Eleven people were accused of ten murders by use of witchcraft.

Of those eleven, nine were hanged in Lancaster castle, one was hanged in York and one was found not guilty.

These are probably the most well-known witch trials in history, and they make Lancaster an ever-popular destination for ghost and history walks.

I visited Lancaster a few times in November and December as my girlfriend was in a play there over Christmas (unfortunately not about witches).

At sunset the castle has an eerie feel to it. But it’s crazy to think just how many people were executed there.

The phrase “witch hunt” has an altogether different meaning today than it did back in 1612.

Today, if you’re the result of a witch hunt, you won’t be sentenced to death, but your career, or your company, may be.

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The modern-day witch hunt

Looking through the news headlines, you’re always sure to find your fill of witch hunts. And this month’s biggest and best has to be… yes, you guessed it – Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.

Now, before I make the wrong impression, I’m not saying that those companies didn’t do anything wrong – clearly they did.

But it’s clear that people with agendas to push have seized on this mass media outrage and pushed it to their own ends.

This is what’s called controlling the narrative, and I’ve written about it before.

As soon as this story surfaced, it was clear it would only be a matter of time until it was used by the press as the reason for anything political that they don’t agree with.

It started, obviously, with the appointment of Donald Trump, and now it’s centred on Brexit.

Open up the Guardian today, you’re greeted with the headline: “Pressure grows on PM over Brexit Cambridge Analytica scandal”.

That’s right. People voted for Brexit and Trump because Cambridge Analytica sold their Facebook data.

That must be the reason, because no rational person would vote for either of those things, right? They were played like puppets. Those poor people who are too stupid to think for themselves… at least that’s what most of the media seems to believe. Or dearly wants to.

The strange thing about this whole debacle, to me at least, is that surely everyone knows it was going on.

Perhaps I’m too cynical, but growing up as the internet grew up, me and my friends always knew anything we put online was not really ours.

We knew that whatever we wrote on any forum or on Myspace, or later Facebook, would be available to people we wouldn’t want reading it. We always used the rule, don’t write anything on the internet you wouldn’t want bringing up in court.

The internet is not the safe space many people seem to believe it is. Your data is not that safe. It will be used to sell you things. It will be used to inform marketers and it will be used to inform political campaigns.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone with even the slightest technical literacy. The currency of the internet is data. If you aren’t paying for a service in cash, chances are you’re paying for it with your data.

Many people have known this for years. And the people pretending to be outraged at Facebook right now certainly have.

Sure it makes good headlines to pretend to be outraged, but if these journalists genuinely didn’t realise data was being sold and analysed by Facebook, I think they should just call it a day.

I suppose it all comes back to the question of – do you really care? Do you really care that when you click a link on Facebook that data is being logged and sold to advertisers. Does it really adversely affect your life?

I guess the point when you care is the point when it’s been used to curtail your freedoms – “Oh, we see you ‘liked’ that Facebook page against the Snooper’s Charter, do you support terrorists or something? We might have to keep a closer eye on you.”

And I guess that’s the slippery slope argument. It’s a slippery slope from selling innocuous data to advertisers to selling potentially damaging data to regimes of ill-repute.

So, what’s to be done?

Well as with most “data” problems we are now subject to… cryptos have the answer. And in this case, they really, really, really do.

Blockchain to the rescue

“You can’t just go around with a bucket of blockchain and go painting it on every problem”.

That was a remark Jason Kelley, general manager at IBM, said at London Blockchain Week.

But he went on to say that for certain problems, blockchain will have a phenomenal impact.

And data privacy is one of those problems. This is not a case of blockchain being a solution searching for a problem. This is the case of blockchain being the perfect solution to one of the biggest problems in today’s data-driven world.

So to break the problem down:

  • The internet’s currency is data – like it or not this is how you pay for all those “free” services like Google, Facebook, Instagram, et al.
  • We don’t want to actually pay for these services – you can’t put the “free” genie back in the bottle. Would you be willing to pay for Google, or would you just switch over to a free competitor?
  • But we don’t want them owning, selling and manipulating our personal data either.

Well, there is now a blockchain solution to all these problems.

It will allow:

  • These companies to continue to use our data
  • So their services remain free
  • But it means they can’t actually see into the data or who it comes from
  • And we can withdraw their access to it any time we like. Really withdraw access to it, not just delete our account and hope for the best.

At first that may sound impossible. And that’s why most of the commentators on articles like this one on the Guardian simply don’t get it.

Tell most people that cryptos can provide this solution and they will probably respond in a similar way that “Sneaker” did on that Guardian article.

At first, people simply don’t get how this could work because it doesn’t work in the same way to anything they’ve seen before. It’s very hard for our brains to comprehend an entirely new concept.

What cryptos like Enigma and IOTA will enable (actually, are already enabling) is a way to encrypt and anonymise data while still making it useful for data analysts.

It basically lets computers analyse data without ever actually seeing said data. Yes, it sounds complicated, and it is. But it is the key to solving pretty much all these data problems we see hitting the headlines.

Medical companies would be able to compute medical data without actual direct access to it. Facebook advertisers would be able to target ads without Facebook actually seeing or holding anyone’s personal data.

“Sneaker” is looking at this in the only way they can. They are presuming blockchain data works in the same way as physical data. It doesn’t. In a system like Enigma, no one would ever be able to just see the data on a screen and copy and paste it.

Applications like this are why Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg listed blockchain tech as one of his biggest areas of research in his end-of-year Facebook post.

As blockchain tech gets more widely adopted, things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal simply won’t be able to happen.

In fact, it will create a whole new dynamic between users and platforms. As users, we will be able to make money from selling our own data to these providers and advertisers directly (if we choose to) safe in the knowledge that our private data is still private.

It’s the best of both worlds. And it’s being made possible by cryptos.

Right now cryptos and blockchain only grab headlines because of their huge price swings. But pretty soon it will become apparent to people just how much they are going to change the world.

Yes, the price swings make good headlines, but the things the underlying technology enables is incredible to think about.

Perhaps the reason I’m not so bothered by these Facebook revelations is because I know they will only go on for so much longer.

A new world is coming, and it’s powered by cryptos.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Blockchain

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