As new details continue to emerge in the ongoing scandal over consulting firm Cambridge Analytica's acquisition of some Facebook user data, many netizens are expressing dismay over the tension between their desires for privacy and the ways in which many leading online platforms make money: by selling user data and/or services related to those data.
In an April 17 development that is, at least for now, only tangentially related to privacy concerns, Amazon Technologies, Inc. was issued a patent (no. 9947033) for a "streaming data marketplace." On this platform, data relating to cryptocurrency transactions could be coupled with other data (such as IP addresses) associated with particular blockchain addresses and sold as a single item.
Put another way, the proposed platform's users could, in some cases, pay to learn who sent a given cryptocurrency payment, who received it, and what the sender expects to receive in return. This is because while blockchain addresses themselves are pseudonymous, the identities of the individuals who use those addresses can be ascertained by connecting on-blockchain transactions to off-platform events, such as the shipping of goods from one street address to another.
Originally applied for in September 2014, the patent describes a system in which a "stream of data may be received and then correlated and combined with data from a second source as a combined stream." The marketplace's users would be able to buy the contents of both individual and combined streams, and could even purchase access to one data stream, combine that data stream with another, and use the platform to sell access to the newly-formed combined stream. Customers would have the ability to customize the ways in which different streams are correlated and combined.
Combining several streams can make the contents of each one more valuable or useful to customers, according to the document:
"One example is a data stream that publishes or includes global bitcoin transactions (or any crypto currency transaction) … The raw transaction data may have little meaning to a customer unless the customer has a way to correlate various elements of the stream with other useful data. For example, a group of electronic or internet retailers who accept bitcoin transactions may have a shipping address that may correlate with the bitcoin address."
The platform's customers would be able to buy data in specific amounts, "such as by the megabyte … rather than purchasing the data for an amount of time," for instance, by the hour.
One major feature that would distinguish the business practices of Amazon's "streaming data marketplace" from those of actors such as Facebook: The social media giant, while admitting that it has allowed direct access to user data for academic purposes, claims to prohibit the sale of these data "to any ad network, data broker or other advertising or monetization-related service."
The Amazon platform, by contrast, would be selling individuals' data directly to buyers. These parties could include advertisers and, following language in the patent itself, "Government" and "law enforcement" agencies; telecommunications providers; and others.
The blockchain users whose data stand to be sold in this marketplace might not be interacting with the surveilled blockchain networks in the capacity of Amazon customers, thus the company would not necessarily be selling its own users' data per se.
However, many cryptocurrency enthusiasts remain misinformed about the degree of anonymity that certain blockchain networks offer and, like so many Facebook users, they could see their expectations of privacy upended if and when Amazon launches the platform.