In the fourth episode of the Decentralized Web Podcast, hosts Jonathan and Justin Bingham are joined by Cameron Boozarjomehri, Lead Software Systems Engineer at MITRE, a company which aims to solve problems for a safer world, working in the public interest to discover new possibilities, create unexpected opportunities, and lead by pioneering together for the public good. During the podcast, Jonathan, Justin and Cameron discuss data decentralization and consent-based data sharing.
Challenges for a safer online world
MITRE’s motto is ‘solving problems for a safer world’. The internet has a resiliency problem that comes from centralization and those investigating emerging technologies are trying to solve this problem. Issues like ransomware and cyber attacks demonstrate resiliency problems that come from centralization, and although back-up solutions exist for centralized systems, not much effort has gone into developing the same for decentralized systems. Physical choke points throughout the internet are managed by companies or internet service providers; sometimes these companies and providers allow governments to control how the internet moves through geographies. Decentralized technologies come in all shapes and sizes and, in countries with restrictive regimes, civil activists and ‘hacktivists’ are developing applications that allow phones to connect to Bluetooth from other phones to create an intranet or mini networks that allow people to continue interacting in ways that subvert monolithic, top-down ways of controlling the internet.
What is MITRE and how does it create a safer world?
Historically, MITRE researchers helped the US government create new technologies. Over time MITRE has evolved into a non-profit with seven federally funded research and development centres – FRRDCs – that enable government and commercial, private academics to research new technologies to see how they would work on a global scale. MITRE has the Knowledge Driven Enterprise, an open platform used by MITRE engineers and employees to publish blog posts about their work to share the decentralized and cyber research taking place. MITRE has also played a key role in standards work, especially in the security and privacy arena, and continues this work in decentralized technologies and standards to try to solve modern problems. The MITRE Innovation Programme encourages research questions that, if deemed good enough to fund, enable researchers to spend time helping MITRE and its sponsors understand how subjects fit into their own ecosystems to ultimately help governments and citizens.
Problems presented by centralization
This is more of a history question than a technology question. For a long time the US government had no decentralized way to properly manage data collection, so a top-down, central project was always necessary. The first privacy law was introduced in 1974 because controls were required around the central collection and management of citizen’s data. These laws have since evolved to include electronic health records. Both laws and thought have moved towards centralization to ensure adequate safety and collaboration between systems, and realisation has dawned that maybe centralization isn’t working as well as we thought it would.
How can decentralized technologies be part of the solution?
One thing that decentralized technologies do incredibly well, especially when they’re implemented effectively, is scalability. A good, decentralized technology will allow the deployment of nodes that the network itself will scale and manage without the need to rely on one top-down system or service. Decentralized technologies need to be governed and we need to understand how they can communicate with each other; decentralized technologies are powerful because depending on your problem, they allow you to effectively manage resources whether they be how systems interact, how different organisations interact, or how people interact across virtual distances.
Large organisations that incorporate compartmentalisation and data silos, but have constituents that need to interact with these silos, could utilise decentralization as a tool to solve these integration problems and help the silos communicate with each other. We need to give individuals control over their own data, to create a digital identity for citizens, to create a better way for citizens to manage their own data and understand what data the government has and how it’s used. Law makers will soon need to completely re-think how the laws apply, as decentralized technologies continue to grow in interest and applicability. In a scenario where a single central system no longer manages all data, or matches between two siloed systems, and instead everyone owns own data, the government will be in the position of requesting access. Citizens won’t have to worry about teaching the government who they are every time they interact with them.
Identity systems of the future
It has always been a challenge to identify each person living in a country, this started with individual names and in the US progressed to using unique social security numbers. The problem with widespread use of one unique, passive identifier is the potential for identity fraud and the general confusion of people being mis-labelled in a system, when, for example a number is wrongly entered. Driving licenses are a more federated approach but differ by state, the introduction of the Real ID Act allows a more stringent confirmation and assurance of identity.
Decentralization of identity would fundamentally change the paradigm around laws that regulate how the government uses technology and data in a centralized way. If everyone owns their own data, current laws will need to change.
The future impact of decentralization
The aspiration is for future online interactions to be one-click rather than the convoluted processes we currently undertake. If you are a disabled veteran or com from a disadvantaged community, being able to interact with a government that knows who you are, what you need and can help you find the resources and access you need in as few steps and clicks as possible would be the greatest outcome and is ideally the direction of travel for decentralization. MITRE are working hard to make these aspirations a reality.
To find out more about decentralization and consent-based data sharing, listen to the full podcast episode.
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