Canadian Academic Speaks on Blockchain and Perceived Privacy

December 16, 2017

Canadian Academic Speaks on Blockchain and Perceived Privacy

Posted: 16/12/16

From Bitcoin to the recent development of “blockchain technologies”, the underlying technology of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, privacy enhancement is often touted as a key feature of these new technologies. There is a sense in which the pseudonymous nature of transactions recorded on a decentralised public ledger or a “blockchain” are somehow more private than many existing alternatives. When pseudonymous transactions are time-stamped and immutably recorded into a publically-verifiable distributed ledger, along with the possibility of cryptographic authentication and verification, a great deal of nuanced control of information is possible. Moreover, blockchain ledgers are agnostic about their recorded values—a place where persons and objects are treated alike. This agnostic view of information content permits flexibility around tracking, verifying, and, in general, controlling, the context of information flow. Newer blockchain applications include the ability to track objects in supply chains, monetise digital art, vote electronically, and issue digital identity cards. All of these new applications require significant normative attention to information flow, in a broad sense, for: security (exclusion), creating economic value (rarity), and privacy (freedom from intrusion).

In this exploratory talk, DuPont introduced Helen Nissenbaum’s “contextual integrity” framework for understanding how privacy works on blockchains. In doing so, he explored how blockchain technologies can be normatively evaluated in terms of potential privacy functions, a topic that has been explored pragmatically (by developing technological solutions), but has not yet received rigorous philosophical analysis. Of the many potential ways to understand privacy, Nissenbaum’s approach has garnered significant interest in recent years because it is ideally suited to the kinds of dynamics present in information and communication technologies. Nissenbaum’s framework stipulates context-specific values of appropriateness and information flow in determining privacy justifications. Given the ways that identity is managed in blockchain systems, which comes with a set of socio-technical commitments, the contextual integrity framework offers a useful starting point to understand privacy justifications for blockchains.

Quinn DuPont Bio:

Quinn DuPont studies the role of cryptography, cybersecurity, and code in society, and is an active researcher in digital studies, digital humanities, and media studies. He also writes on Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies, and blockchain technologies, and is currently involved in Canadian SCC/ISO blockchain standardization efforts (SMC/ISO/TC307). He has nearly a decade of industry experience as a Senior Information Specialist at IBM, IT consulting, and more recently, usability and experience design with Oban Digital. Quinn is currently writing Cryptocurrencies (Polity Press, Digital Media and Society).

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