“Knowledge is power” is a phrase you may have heard once or twice in your lifetime. Today, I’d like to propose a bit of a 21st century twist on the saying — “data is knowledge and knowledge is power, therefore data is power.” Easy enough, right?

We are living in a time where our data is being harvested, sold, and consumed without our conscious knowledge, let alone active permission. We passively sacrifice the modern “power” of our data points to tech companies, government contractors and many others without batting an eye. Data points which we generate hundreds or thousands of times a day with each click, scroll and, with wearables becoming more prevalent, move we make.

It was no coincidence that the first application of blockchain technology emerged after the 2008 financial crisis, at a time when individuals and communities felt powerless. “Perhaps,” many thought, “if we could have a currency that we, ourselves, controlled, we could regain financial autonomy and therefore, fiscal power.” Enter bitcoin, the first known use case of blockchain. To stretch this theory further, what if we viewed our purchasing decisions as votes and the businesses we support through said purchasing power as bodies who’re to be held accountable? The conversation then evolves to “our money has influence and we should be empowered to wield this influence without the fear of a small, self-interested group undermining our choices.”

Let’s return to my initial argument that “data is power.” As it stands today, your data is held by companies and these companies likely store your data in a single place, not far from modern-day thieves, also known as hackers. Take Equifax for example. It may be abstract to see the value of your FitBit data that’s being collected, but what about your credit history or credit score or social security number? These short numbers, just a few digits, determine your future: Are you able get your dream house? What about that loan to expand your business? The value found in this data is easily grasped — and for many Americans affected by the Equifax hack, that data – or power – was exposed and left vulnerable.

A blockchain is an answer to such a security vulnerability. Imagine thousands of computers around the world, all maintaining the same record of information that can’t be edited or deleted — only amended. The resiliency of the system lies in the duplicity of the information. Attacks must be far more sophisticated, coordinated and, accordingly so, costly.

Now, I’m not calling for us all to drop what we’re doing to become blockchain developers. What I am proposing and advocating for, however, is the creation of informed digital citizens — you and me. Thanks to bitcoin and other popularized blockchain-based projects, understanding blockchain technology is far more in reach than you may believe it to be. Take LitePaper, for example. For free, you can access a collection of simple guides breaking down the buzzwords you may come across in your Google search of the ever-mystical “blockchain.”

As global, digital citizens engaging with companies that are larger and more influential than nation-states, we must demand accountability in regards to how our information is being used and greater security of our data. Furthermore, we are capable of regaining control of our data, placing the power back into our own hands. It’s challenging, though, to demand accountability when one knows so little about what is happening and what one can do to change the circumstances. So I ask you to do your research. To learn about what information is being collected when you visit that website or use that free online service. To understand that you have a choice when it comes to the governance of your digital life.

In many, but not all cases, blockchain is a fitting solution. We are not only capable of challenging the digital status quo, but we have a responsibility to know our rights and once we know our rights, we are then able to make informed decisions, suggest alternatives and influence the way businesses and legislators operate. After all, when power is returned to the people, systems have a chance to finally work for all of us.

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Ariana Fowler
Ariana Fowler is passionate about the role of emerging technology in emerging markets as a long-term solution to international development issues. Her academic research specialized in refugee-related interventions, as well as the economic implications of the refugee crisis. She has conducted field work in Ghana & Honduras and was awarded the Critical Language Scholarship to study Urdu in northern India. During her time at ConsenSys, she sat on the Social Impact team, consulting on client-facing projects in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, as well as developing use-cases and research studies focusing on the application of blockchain technology as it relates to development and humanitarian aid. She currently is on the blockchain strategy team at UNICEF.