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Privacy Concerns Over Comcast’s Blockchain Foray

A recent patent submission by the telecom giant Comcast is certain to garner the attention of the blockchain community as well as privacy advocates.

The filing suggests that the company is examining how to store customer viewing habits and identifying data on a blockchain-based database.  

Released by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on November 9, this new patent application outlined two types of databases that would serve as a repository of customer information. One of these databases, according to the filing, would employ a blockchain-centric concept.

In short, this database would hold private and identifying information of customers that’s only accessible by authorized entities. In an effort to raise transparency, the proposed system would create a log of every time it is accessed.

The second database, which would be distributed in nature but not explicitly on a blockchain, could house user location information, serving as a honeypot of customer data for entities seeking to access it.

Comcast noted in its application that customers often take advantage of multiple systems and services, from websites like Hulu to traditional televisions and access programming. It aims to capture and evaluate consumer viewing habits across myriad platforms, creating a capture point for this information.

While this application marks a first for Comcast, it is not the company’s only foray into the blockchain world. This summer, Comcast joined a partnerships with Disney, NBCUniversal, Cox Communications, Mediaset Italia, Channel 4 and TF1 with the intent of creating a new blockchain-based advertising platform.

Joshua A. T. Fairfield, an internationally recognized law and technology scholar specializing in digital property, electronic contract and big data privacy, believes that initiatives like these raise some red flags with respect to consumer privacy.

“Imagine that, as you are going to bed for the night, you notice a drone watching you through the window,” Fairfield said. “Imagine then that this drone follows you everywhere you go throughout the day: to the doctor, to the therapist, to political rallies, to religious services and to the bar, month after month after month. And the drone tracks you online as well. Imagine the drone recorded every web search you made, recorded every keystroke you entered, where you were browsing, what you were interested in. Once the drone finds out who you know, your spouse, your children, it sends drones to track them too and tie all of your data together.”

Fairfield, in using this hypothetical example, is quick to point out that media companies don’t follow us with drones because they don’t need to. But his comparison still stands. Comcast does not gather all of this data for the benefit of consumers. Rather, Fairfield said, they do it for their own benefit.  

“Quite simply, they want to know what we want, how much we want it and how much we can afford to pay,” he said. “Entering an economic transaction such as this is like playing poker with someone who can see your cards. The consumer can’t win.”

As advancements like the one proposed by Comcast continue to take shape, Fairfield hopes that regulatory agencies will begin to listen to consumers and hold companies accountable for the appropriate use of this data.

“I hope that we will be able to see past the flash and noise of politics to realize that we have a limited window of time to make sure that in years to come, consumers are the owners of their data and not owned,” he said.

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