For those that hadn't noticed yet, cryptocurrencies are everywhere. You can use cryptocurrencies to buy Microsoft products. You can use it to buy the latest tech gear. At one point, you could even buy a special, Bitcoin-only bucket of chicken. It's the blockchain that makes it all possible, however, that's proving to have real implications for the future of technology.
Over the past few years, blockchain technologies have been put to use in some innovative new ways. Most notably, global shipping giant Maersk is using it to revolutionize cross-border trade. Crypto Rocket is merging blockchain technology with Forex currency markets. Even diamond conglomerate De Beers is getting in the act with an end-to-end diamond tracking platform. The blockchain developments have come so fast and often that it's all but impossible to keep up.
For the average person, though, these applications remain abstract. There's been little in the way of development for consumer-level blockchain uses. IBM, however, aims to change that, if their latest patent application means anything.
The Blockchain @Home
The patent describes a new web browser system that would rely on a blockchain backend to provide both secure storage and enhanced privacy for users. The idea is brilliant in its simplicity. By making a distributed encrypted ledger the storage medium for web browsing data, users can decide when, how, and with whom to share their data – and there'd be no way around it.
According to the patent application, the browser could use the blockchain to store things like browsing history, bookmarks, software performance data, geolocation, and really any other kind of telemetry the system can produce. It even includes a provision that would make the data collection customizable, so it would be useful in corporate or other business deployments as well. IBM believes that such a system puts control of each user's data back into their own hands, eliminating middlemen and third-parties from the equation.
They also foresee the setup providing a useful fail-safe in the event a user suffers a browser-based cyber attack. With irreplaceable data encrypted, split, and stored elsewhere, it would be safe from harm and could be restored on demand whenever necessary. Critically, the system would provide a user token that could be used to verify that the person requesting the data has the right to access it.
Against the Grain
IBM's blockchain browser idea comes at a time when most other companies are looking at providing users with privacy by preventing data storage in the first place. That's why there's been such an uptick in the use of so-called private browsing or incognito modes in today's flagship web browsers. There has also been a movement to educate people on how to protect their privacy online, as well as a big jump in the use of consumer VPN services by those looking to prevent unauthorized monitoring of their online habits.
Together, these trends paint a picture of an internet-using public that wants nothing they do online subject to oversight by others – for advertising purposes or otherwise. Still, there's no denying that having access to one's own browsing history is a useful feature. That's why IBM's blockchain storage idea could be the ultimate solution to the internet privacy problem. It simultaneously preserves user privacy without robbing them of usability features they've come to expect and rely on. In that way, the idea could be an end-user blockchain application that has some real potential.
To Store or Not to Store
All of this sets up a coming tech battle that could pit two divergent approaches to internet privacy against one another in a war for the allegiance of the multitude of internet users worldwide. The only real question is whether IBM can build, test, and market a usable version of the technology their patent describes before competing solutions become too entrenched throughout the world.
Also, they face the very real challenge of convincing users that their system makes it safe to allow for storing their browsing data. That'll be no small feat given the near-hysteria that's been whipped up by privacy advocates, VPN providers, and conspiracy theorists that see the online threat of a digital big brother lurking around every corner. If IBM succeeds, though, they could become the first company to create a successful mass-market blockchain product that achieves a high penetration rate on computers and devices everywhere. And that, given the slow pace of consumer adoption of the technology, would be quite an accomplishment.