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Princeton-Trained Computer Scientists Are Building a New Internet That Brings Privacy and Property Rights to Cyberspace

Meet the developers behind Blockstack, who are using blockchain technology to reconfigure the web. It’ll make NSA mass data collection impossible.

Muneeb Ali and Ryan Shea are the co-founders of Blockstack, a project to rebuild the internet using blockchain technology so that individuals can reclaim direct control over their own identities, contacts, and data. The goal is to bring the property rights we enjoy in the physical world to cyberspace.

These two Princeton-trained computer scientists—Ali completed his Ph.D. last month with a speciality in distributed systems—believe that today's internet is fundamentally broken. Users are forced to trust companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook to maintain our online identities and personal information. They store our files in giant data centers that are increasingly vulnerable to hackers. And the Snowden leaks revealed that the National Security Agency has strong armed these tech giants into handing over users' personal data without bothering to obtain court-issued warrants.

"Google has this saying, 'don't be evil,'" says Ali. "Maybe a company shouldn't be powerful enough that they're sitting there thinking, 'should I be evil or not?'"

So how does Blockstack propose to alter cloud computing, which has bought enormous efficiencies to the tech sector? Ali and Shea say they've worked out a way to break up internet data centers into virtual storage lockers that are fully encrypted, so individual users are the only ones who hold the keys to their own data.

"If you're a Dropbox engineer, you can go through my files today," says Ali. "But if I use Dropbox through Blockstack, they have no visibility into the data at all."

This new decentralized architecture is possible thanks to the invention of a new type of distributed database called a "blockchain," which was introduced to the world in 2008 as a component of the peer-to-peer digital currency bitcoin. The blockchain was designed as a decentralized system for keeping track of who owns what bitcoin, but in the last nine years an entire industry has emerged that all about integrating the blockchain into everything from real estate markets to driverless car technology.

Shea describes the blockchain as a virtual "whitepages the community maintains together," which "anyone can add to" but "nobody controls"—a record that doesn't require a central entity to guarantee its veracity. This shared white pages lists the location of each users' encrypted data lockers.

Essential online functions that can be moved to the blockchain include registering unique identities and keeping track of each users' personal contacts. On this new internet, applications like Facebook and Twitter will still exist, but they'll have far less power and responsibility.

"At Blockstack, we're enabling small, open-source groups to grow and compete with the large players," says Shea.

What will the Blockstack internet mean for Silicon Valley? Shea predicts a new wave of tech firms will emerge. "I believe this will create a much larger economy and a lot more prosperity for everyone."

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Written, shot, produced, and edited by Jim Epstein. Hosted by Nick Gillespie. Additional camera by Kevin Alexander.

Common Consensus by The Franks, Creative Commons Attribution license.

Mario Bava Sleeps In a Little Later Than He Expected To by Chris Zabriskie, Creative Commons Attribution license.

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What True Self, Feels Bogus, Let's Watch Jason X by Chris Zabriskie, Creative Commons Attribution license.

Canon in D Major by Kevin MacLeod, Creative Commons Attribution license.

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  • Half-Virtue, Half-Vice||

    I hope these guys don't go for a spin in any self-driving vehicles.

  • Devastator||

    It doesn't matter, they've already released the technology and open sourced it. Anyone can play with it now. That's the beauty of open source

  • Half-Virtue, Half-Vice||

    I never understand how the ideologue is supposed to usurp power from the living megaliths who'll never willingly relinquish their power over, say, states or billion dollar industries.

    I mean just look what the government does to Uber simply because they own and protect the taxi industry. What do you think they'll do to maintain control of the internet?

  • techgump||

    All "megaliths" collapse; fact. It's only a matter of when. That includes this Govt too, someday.

  • Half-Virtue, Half-Vice||

    True but we don't exactly win if this shit only crumbles under the Yellowstone super-volcano or the next ice age; cause that'll be taking us down with the megaliths.

  • Dillinger||

    if I'm gonna go before they can make me a cylon, I want to be part of the Yellowstone super-volcano explosion

  • Cynical Asshole||

    What do you think they'll do to maintain control of the internet?

    I would hope that the pace of technological innovation would be too fast for the government to react and that by the time they do, it'll be too late. Blockstack and blockchain technology in general will be out there and they won't be able to cram the genie back in the proverbial bottle. Of course, I suppose they could just ban the blockchain and make it illegal for any new technology to use anything similar to blockchain in the future, but that would require them to fully and once and for all rip off their masks and reveal themselves for the totalitarian cunts that they are.

    Of course, it's possible no one except for us "extremists" will care if they do. Most people don't know what blockchain is and don't care (I'll admit I don't know that much about how it works myself). And all it would take is for one terrorist attack where the terrorists used Blockstack or something similar to keep their data away from the prying eyes of the NSA for most people to go along with banning it.

  • ||

    I would hope that the pace of technological innovation would be too fast for the government to react and that by the time they do, it'll be too late.

    Moore's Law is dead. I'm fairly certain the 'free' internet as we know it is, or will be, dead. There was a window of time when your communication could ride over the ideologically free and corporate subsidized public copper lines (that they felt they owned). Now, for many reasons, that idea and/or those notions are dead and impossibly strong encryption won't fix it.

  • Devastator||

    Also the sky is falling. Moore's law is still intact, and there are plenty technologies to hide you from anyone other than a state level actor like a government. Calm down, chickenlittle.

  • ||

    Also the sky is falling. Moore's law is still intact, and there are plenty technologies to hide you from anyone other than a state level actor like a government.

    No, Moore's law is dead. Either version, in order to continue living, would need advances that haven't happened yet. It's possible that we might get back to or maintain some form of punctuated Moore's law but it's not or no longer a 'universal law' and more of an engineering/economic/cultural zeitgeist or oddity. Not that you could really ever just rely on really fast and hard encryption to keep you safe to begin with.

    Also, from a libertarian perspective, the whole point is to be able to hide from state-level actors. Your neighbors and/or the mafia doesn't care about your secret fetishes and, even if it did, using them as leverage to compel you to act is among any one of a number of crimes.

    My larger point is that, IMO, an inversion or reversion has happened. In 1989 (more so into and through the 90s), chatting online with Russians or the Chinese would've been generally seen as harmless or even beneficial free speech. Now, 'election hacking' means all manner of election machinery is going to be (rightfully) air-gapped. Additionally though, all manner of surveillance and firewalling will be enacted to prevent hate speech and undue influence. An internet that was once just supposed to be free is now supposed to be free, equal, just, honest, and respectful of borders and cultures.

  • IMissLiberty||

    So far, since computers are principled (insisting on correct spelling, grammar, and logic before acting), and only those who understand principles can fully exploit computers, and since the population of politicians mostly consists of the popular kids (who are people-persons, tech-phobic, and often illogical), those who exploit computers have easily kept ahead of politicians (even when they hire technologists).
    The coercive tools of politicians are the taxes and regulations aimed at the businesses that depend on the Internet. They control organizations through threats and instilling fear. If individuals can use a decentralized system that has no location, pays on taxes, and is available everywhere, the only thing the governments can do to arrest it, is to cut phone cables, shoot down the satellites, and put up jamming signals on all data traffic. Technology, itself, does not respond to the tactics of fear.
    Politicians, of course, are highly motivated by fear, so if innovative technologists maintain their lead long enough for those with influence to build businesses using it and for voters/consumers to use it, then politicians will realize which side of the bread is buttered. It's too late for those in Congress to be willing to consider cutting phone cables as the telecommunications lobby wouldn't like it, and neither would voters, but I suppose we could elect an irrational dictator.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    A hammer in search of a nail. Nothing prevents ppl from encrypting their data now and nothing prevents signing. Not having read any more detail than what was in this piece (nice linking, nick) at best you can make the case that this removes the need for a root certifier. *Yawn* wake me when this really matters.

  • Barbara Yarhead||

    This is bigger than encryption and certification. While encryption will still be used, and certification would no longer be unnecessary, the key difference is the seamless separation of data control and access from applications. This is awesome.

  • ||

    "If you're a Dropbox engineer, you can go through my files today," says Ali. "But if I use Dropbox through Blockstack, they have no visibility into the data at all."

    It's exceedingly dumb. Like, "security through obscurity" dumb. "If the government doesn't know what's in my Dropbox, they won't be able to [whatever] me!" Right, because before dropbox, the government(s) had no clue how to get access to people's information and, once dropbox came along, suddenly a panacea of government access to private information sprang forth and, having sprang forth, *now* we can put a lid (back) on it.

    So, records can be added and, unless you control the media directly, old records can be deleted/irrevocably re-encrypted? Good luck proving your innocence when the NSA has ironclad empirical proof that you've been receiving money from someone associated with ISIS and your proof is somewhere between encrypted and factually/truthfully deleted from the cloud.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    But can it instantiate the new paradigms?!

    and certification would no longer be unnecessary, the key difference is the seamless separation of data control and access from applications. This is awesome.

    This is gibberish.The encryption happens at a lower layer than the application. That can be done now.

  • Devastator||

    Exactly, but this makes it easier. And that's key. Most people are cool with protecting the environment as long as it's cheap and doesn't require too much effort. Same with the intertubes. Everyone likes cars, but not everyone ones to learn how to grind valves and replace oil rings.

  • ||

    The goal is to bring the property rights we enjoy in the physical world to cyberspace.

    NOOO... Oh, you mean the libertarian-ideal of property rights that we nominally enjoy in our part of the real world. Carry on.

  • Amazing Larry||

    Blockstack will go the way of other similar software like Fakeblock.

  • Longtobefree||

    "The goal is to bring the property rights we enjoy in the physical world to cyberspace."

    You mean allow each level of government to tax the assessed value, as determined by that government?
    Or did you mean allow each level of government to determine a code enforcement structure to assure everyone has 'equal rights', as in your fence cannot be over four feet tall (your encryption cannot be robust)?

  • Flaco||

    Where is Nick's leather jacket?

  • Azathoth!!||

    The Jacket has long abandoned this place.

  • nicmart||

    The article is big on dream and small on nuts and bolts. That usually portends vapor.

  • ||

  • Mark22||

    There are tons of these kinds of projects right now. I think many of them have a better chance of success than Blockstack.

    But one way or another, any form of centralized control of the Internet will likely fall over the next few years.

  • Michael Hihn||

    "Google has this saying, 'don't be evil,'" says Ali. "Maybe a company shouldn't be powerful enough that they're sitting there thinking, 'should I be evil or not?'"

    Good point!
    We know that Jesus Christ pondered that same question for most of his life on earth.

  • tlapp||

    How long before government tries to outlaw such systems? Please keep reporting on the progress. This is truly exciting technology.

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