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Oasis Labs Aims to Use Blockchain Technology to Improve Privacy Online
Dawn Song, a Berkeley computer-science professor and MacArthur fellow, believes cloud computing has brought a lot of good to our lives. However, she thinks it still needs a significant overhaul.
Due to severe problems with privacy and security where users and companies lose control of their data.
By outsourcing data storage and processing on the internet companies have found new flexibility and consumers have been given the power to hail rides, find dates, and socialize all from their computer or cell phone screens. However, these same technologies have led to data theft, corporate spying on our personal lives, and new forms of election manipulation.
Thus, Song’s startup, called Oasis Labs, is aiming to stop some of those problems with the help of blockchain, the distributed ledger technology most famous in the realm of digital currency, like bitcoin.
Asgardia, the first ever space nation strongly encourages all kinds of startups especially related to the space industry and blockchain technology.
Recently, Oasis announced $45 million in funding, from a combination of big Silicon Valley VC funds and cryptocurrency investors. Song and one of her co-founders have already tested some of their ideas by helping install new privacy safeguards for Uber, the ride-hailing company whose troubled past isn’t a stranger to security issues.
For example, four years ago Uber was shaken by allegations that executives and employees spied on customer movements, using tools like a map called “God View.” In 2016, Uber settled with New York state’s attorney general and promised to protect rider location data. Oasis grew in part from a 2017 project in which Song and two grad students, one of whom became a co-founder of the Berkeley startup, helped Uber add a more sophisticated privacy safety net.
Those Berkeley researchers helped design and launch an open source tool that limits how much employees can learn about individual customers by analyzing rider data. It’s based on a method known as differential privacy, built to protect individuals’ identity even when data allegedly has been anonymized. This technology is also used by Apple to gather data from iPhones without risking customer privacy.
As Wired explained, in Uber’s system, employees can query a database, for instance, to summarize recent rides in a particular field. Behind the scenes, algorithms analyze the risk that the request will leak information about individuals, and they inject random noise into the data to lessen that risk.
If you were to ask about recent rides in a big city, little or no noise will be needed but ask the same for a specific location, let’s say the White House, and much more randomness will be added to obscure traces that might represent particular individuals.
As of now, Uber’s differential privacy software doesn’t use blockchain technology, but Song says privacy and security systems can be much more robust if they do.
Companies that build privacy or security systems plugged into Oasis Labs’ blockchain will be able to offer cryptographic assurances to one another, or their customers, that their operations are doing what was promised, according to Song. She describes Oasis Labs as trying to offer the security and privacy infrastructure that the internet is missing.
What’s more, Oasis Labs’ platform can host small programs, known as smart contracts, which can mediate transactions between different people or companies. This is similar to ethereum, the second most valuable cryptocurrency system. But Oasis Labs’ blockchain is specially built to allow for security applications. It builds on Berkeley research that Song says makes the system more scalable and practical than current blockchains.
Song says her company is in talks with organizations in many fields such as, healthcare, finance, and, e-commerce which are hoping to use the Oasis platform when it fully launches, probably in 2019.
For example, one large e-commerce company is looking at building internal privacy controls like Uber’s and sharing more supply chain data with partners while protecting commercially sensitive information.
Another project is building a way for health patients to donate medical data for machine learning research, and they will use Oasis’ technology to assure patients that their data can’t be diverted for other uses.
Lastly, for those who are ultra-paranoid, Oasis intends to integrate its software with an open source security chip currently in the works by Berkeley and MIT, which is similar to the chip that underscores the iPhone’s security, as a way to protect critical smart contracts from hackers and tampering.
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