In this issue

  1. MiPasa blockchain alliance wages information war against coronavirus
  2. Zoom social-distances away from Facebook over privacy brouhaha
  3. Microsoft wants to power crypto mining with brain waves and body heat
  4. Covid-19 strikes down Digital Farms in California 
  5. In China: Crypto exchanges under fire; blockchain sweeps ancestral graves

Listen to the podcast

Listen to Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau and Senior Editor Sam Reynolds discuss the top blockchain news from around the world.

From the Editor’s Desk

Covid-19 is ravaging families, communities, nations. The civil liberties that we’ve given up is one that many of us give up willingly to save lives. But increasingly, there is a creep of concern that the tactics employed today in a unified cause for mutual survival could also in future be used against us in another capacity. This is where blockchain must come into play.

The one thing that is clear in this global fight against Covid-19, is that mass data, transparency and accuracy are necessary to help keep the spread of the virus at bay. That doesn’t have to mean giving up your privacy. This is the promise of blockchain, and real-time critical application of it is emerging in blockchain-based systems like one of the stories we are tracking this week over at MiPasa. Your sensitive data is shared, while your identity remains encrypted and private. As we’re already experiencing, how do we as a society incentivize individuals to be upfront and transparent in Covid-19 situations? Can it play a role in helping us all identify who we’ve been exposed to without having to share our social history with a third-party or government agency? Technology is the tool that can speed up answers during this critical time.

The Current Forkast remains torrential for the time-being. We are all sheltering in place as best we can. And as we work from home, Zoom is experiencing its moment in the sun. And for others flying too close to that sun like Icarus (“Poor Jennifer”), it is learning the hard way that when you click into your next online video conference… you should always just assume you are on camera. Always. So here are a few tips that may help you get into that frame of mind, from me to you.

Lastly, I want to take a moment and dedicate this to Maria Mercader, CBS senior producer, AAJA leader, colleague, beloved family and friend to too many to count. Those of us privileged to know her will honor her spirit as best we can until ours join with hers. Maria passed away from Covid-19 in New York this week. She championed so many of us, and because of her, we pay it forward — the truest legacy of a life well lived. This is a virus that continues to spread. My choice is to see this through the lens that it will inspire us to be better. Thank you Maria for all you’ve done, and all that you’ll continue to do through those of us who remain inspired by you.

Until the next time,

Angie Lau,
Founder & Editor-in-Chief

1. MiPasa global alliance against the coronavirus

MiPasa is a global control and communication system used to monitor the Covid-19 outbreak. Image: MiPasa

By the numbers: MiPasa — 1850% increase in Google search volume.

A global blockchain project to battle the coronavirus brings together the World Health Organization, IBM, Microsoft, Hacera, and other governments and leading tech firms. 

  • As a response to alleged misreporting of numbers and distrust towards the influx of varying information, MiPasa utilizes Hyperledger Fabric to provide early detection of carriers and contagious areas. 
  • Identifying asymptomatic carriers has been a difficult challenge, but MiPasa hopes to detect unseen carriers using crowd data. 
  • MiPasa can also be used to preservice privacy and create a framework for lawful access to data. 

Forkast.Insights | What does it mean?

Efforts to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic gripping the world often involve bringing together different databases and sources of information. An example could be Taiwan’s ambitious Covid-19 containment system that tracks all citizens, residents and tourists entering the country, noting their entry dates on their medical records. Singapore has a similar system in place, but takes it a step further and tracks via the phone’s Bluetooth radio whom a person comes in contact with. So if there’s a need to trace their contacts, authorities can do so fairly easily. 

Inevitably, when combining all of this data, a big problem emerges: privacy. A person’s real-time location data and medical records are normally some of the most protected information in existence. To have access to this data, authorities would need to convince a judge that it’s necessary to have this information and provide a timeline of when the data would be destroyed. 

But the urgency of the situation has meant that privacy legislation — which exists in substantial form in both Taiwan and Singapore — was placed to the side while the system was developed. 

This is what’s stopping other jurisdictions from implementing similar systems, and this is where blockchain-based systems like MiPasa can come into play. Sensitive data, such as a person’s location history, can be tokenized. Smart contracts would ensure that authorities won’t be able to see everyone’s data, only a tokenized representation of it (tokens are used to create an encrypted representation of it, so that an outside party can verify that something exists but not necessarily see the contents). But if a person is a confirmed case, authorities would be able to view their information for a limited time. In addition, a list of authorized users of the data could be created with set parameters for how long they can view it and to what extent they can export it. 

The other pain point MiPasa looks to address is ensuring that data is clean and consistent. For instance, what if a person writes on their customs declaration form that they will be at one address, but other data points indicate that they are elsewhere? MiPasa can weigh all available information and identify where a person would likely be. 

Blockchain has many use cases for a situation like this, be it data reconciliation or privacy protection. Situations like this will bring out the best technical minds and innovators to put something together that lets the underlying technology of blockchain shine. 

2. Zoom social-distances away from Facebook 

E2tMXvjpfl5y7qYKJqVsLXLfylq9IP f5xlofQXsQUX7XJm7lVWPs5LpnJPf2IczaYpUqId2m qRLt4qIjJlI9NiJBzsnO5lgm ZZBCKYfbP9iUC5WoSbTqSqv4TqTYuTrTntdh4
Meetings over Zoom have become commonplace as people observe social distancing. Photo: Angie Lau

By the numbers: Zoom — over 5,000% increase in Google search volume.

Coronavirus lockdowns around the world have shifted millions to working from home and boosted the teleconferencing app Zoom’s popularity. (See Angie’s pro tips on how to look and feel your best during those video calls.) But controversy recently erupted over Zoom and user privacy.

  • A Motherboard report criticized Zoom for sending user data to Facebook without user consent and regardless of whether the user owns a Facebook account. The Zoom app was providing Facebook information on users’ devices, including time zone.
  • Zoom responded to the report just a day later by removing the code that allowed the data transfers to Facebook. 

Forkast.Insights | What does it mean?

Zoom’s stratospheric rise in popularity can be credited to the platform’s scalability and overall quality for team-based video conferencing. In the past few months, it has almost single handedly replaced Skype, the platform that was once the verb for video conferencing because of Zoom’s feature set and Microsoft’s mismanagement. 

However, the trust that Zoom has built up could have been quickly eroded by the presence of Facebook’s analytics-gathering code to gather information on the devices being used to access Zoom, which many users found to be disturbing. Although the data Facebook collected would have been only about the user’s device and anonymized to provide Facebook with only a rough aggregate of the types of devices being used at any given time, the extent of the data-sharing was not clearly spelled out in Zoom’s privacy policy. Many people have a negative impression of Facebook as a custodian of data after the scandal of Cambridge Analytica, and this certainly wasn’t worth the risk for Zoom, which has enjoyed a surge in popularity over the last month. 

Although one could say that too much time is focused on Facebook’s previous sins, and not enough is said about Facebook’s new safeguards for user data, Zoom simply wasn’t interested in getting involved and decided to jettison the code. There are many other ways to track user data and gather analytics, and Zoom will likely simply go down the list to the next one. 

3. Can your body heat power crypto mining some day? 

EEG scans are typically used to measure brain wave activity, but could they also be used for blockchain? Photo: Chris Hope 

By the numbers: Microsoft — 1,800% increase in Google search volume. 

Aside from its participation in MiPasa and losing out to Zoom, Microsoft files a new patent for a cryptocurrency mining mechanism using “body activity data.” Microsoft believes the new alternative mining method could lessen the current mining process’s high computational energy consumption. 

  • “For example, a brain wave or body heat emitted from the user when the user performs the task provided by an information or service provider, such as viewing advertisement or using certain internet services, can be used in the mining process. 
  • “Instead of massive computation work required by some conventional cryptocurrency systems, data generated based on the body activity of the user can be a proof-of-work, and therefore, a user can solve the computationally difficult problem unconsciously.”

Forkast.Insights | What does it mean?

Don’t expect Microsoft’s brain-wave miner to become mainstream anytime soon. Tech companies often make attempts to patent technology they’ve thought out, but have not yet commercialized, to ensure that their market rivals don’t make claims to it, or try to incorporate some element of it in a future product. 

Brainwave sensors, technically known as electroencephalography, or EEG, can detect brain activity, but only the most rudimentary of patterns. EEGs are used to detect brain activity in someone who is comatose, or abnormalities in brain activity that trigger seizures or neurological disorders, but they can’t read a person’s thoughts. The most advanced EEGs have shown some progress in allowing people to control parts of their artificial limb, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in this field.

What may be possible with commercially available technology is to determine if a person is paying attention. This could power the next generation of the “Basic Attention Token,” which is used to commodify users’ attention to bring better value to the online advertising market. Is that something technically feasible at this time — scanning brain waves for people’s subconscious thoughts to solve crypto-puzzles? Not quite yet.

4. Coronavirus wipes out Digital Farms

ANLPQNlaZxhJVXs1abqZeRu37uJMgaMbPcaRYjL2aCtmbF9dYyfSgJMvZhqDy5Y uph9yoWZ6PBF
The Novel Coronavirus continues to affect digital assets as well as people. Photo by: NIAID-RML

By the numbers: DPW Holdings — over 5,000% increase in Google search volume. 

Digital assets continue to show volatility as the IMF declares a global economic recession. Amid massive cryptocurrency sell-offs and tumbling prices, DPW Holdings recently temporarily shut down its Californian mining company, Digital Farms. 

  • With the Bitcoin halving approaching in May, Bitcoin skeptic Peter Schiff believes that “more miners will likely shut down after the halving, when mining rewards are cut in half.”
  • The Bitcoin community argues on Twitter that the degree of difficulty is adjusted with the halving. But some also suggest that miners may be selling more than they are mining. 

Forkast.Insights | What does it mean?

This isn’t the first halving the mining industry has been through, but this one will be the most damaging given the rapid unexpected drop in prices and the lack of R&D pipeline available to build better, more efficient silicon for miners. 

What got the mining industry through previous halvings was an R&D arms race that perfected GPU (graphics processor unit) mining, then opened the doors to ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) mining. As of now, however, there’s nothing left to work with. GPU manufacturers aren’t a huge fan of miners bulk-buying their product to devote to mining and are unlikely to provide technical support to improve the mining process. The capital required to create a next-generation ASIC to boost efficiency and productivity to offset the decline in block rewards just isn’t there. 

Case in point: the recent IPO of bitcoin mining company Canaan wasn’t to raise capital to build the next generation of mining technology but rather to help the company transition away from manufacturing miners and instead produce silicon chips for better AI processors. Canaan knows that the writing is on the wall, bitcoin mining is about to become much less profitable and there’s no sense in using their capital to pursue it. 

DPW is an example of what’s to come for the industry. Expect more companies like it to also fold as the profit in mining disappears and Covid-19 runs rampant over the world economy. Mining is going to be only profitable at scale, so big firms will be absorbing the smaller ones and dominating the market. 

5. In China: Sweeping tombs with blockchain, and how Huobi, OKEx and Binance are getting away with it

Lr aRLTgLoLzTVwbCXMjOwrWsjiii42IiMlcTFqfUxH7XbinakxOHoRDd1KN7adQpuQI3 zhY7mseuC5lXW eKQtVYLdtAcwxzkiNr4ho9fQQfTQzLT9cB zj33Erfs2ray5 Fj
Protesters in front of Huobi’s offices in China. Photo by: wublockchain

Local media reports a group of people in Hainan and Beijing held a protest in front of Huobi and OKEx’s headquarters, alleging  the two biggest digital asset exchanges’ servers crashed on purpose in the March 12 market crash. The protestors said Huobi App and OKEx’s app showed “system error” and “no internet connection” during 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on March 12, which prohibited users from conducting transactions and resulted in various degrees of financial loss.

  • OKEx admitted it was a short crash and announced it would provide reasonable compensation to affected users, while Huobi told the local media outlet Wublockchain that technical problems were not detected on the day of the crash. 
  • Chinese media linked the public protects to PBOC’s article published one day before the protest on its official WeChat account, urging investors to keep vigilant on the frauds of digital asset exchanges, including malicious downtime and market manipulation.
  • In fact, PBOC’s official WeChat account has published a series of nine posts regarding financial interest protection since World Consumer Rights Day on March 15. Among the nine posts, three of them are about blockchain and digital assets.

Separately, China Financial Times, a newspaper owned by People’s Bank of China, published a story on the “three sins” of digital asset exchanges.

  • The newspaper summarizes the sins as: faking trades to attract customers, malicious downtime to manipulate the market, and money laundering. 
  • Addressing more than 300 offshore exchanges that “provide illegal services to domestic clients by locating its servers overseas to evade regulations,” the article states that PBOC and the Cyberspace Administration of China will cooperate to monitor and handle the “offshore” digital assets exchanges.

Forkast.Insights | What does it mean?

Cryptocurrency trading is quite illegal in China, so one might wonder how OKEx and Huobi, which largely employ Chinese nationals, target Chinese nationals for their respective user base, and have a sizable office presence in China, can get away with operating.

They continue to operate because they are incorporated offshore. Huobi is domiciled in Singapore, while OKEx is in Malta. Their headquarters aren’t in China, so legally they are not Chinese companies. Their presence in China is only technical staff, so they don’t need to worry about Chinese law in this regard… for now.

Fellow crypto exchange Binance is structured in a similar way. While it has staff in China, its corporate domicile is elsewhere (and exactly where is up for debate). Late last year, erroneous media reports claimed there was a “raid” on Binance’s headquarters in Shanghai, but the reality was the company’s corporate registry in China had long expired and the “raid” was simply on a few remote workers that had desks in a workshare space.  

That being said, Huobi and OKEx are a bit more brazen in their approach by keeping a large headcount within China. Beijing’s patience is being tested with the legal fiction of these companies’ offshore corporate domicile. Expect it to take action on whatever assets they have within China should it feel that retail investors are at risk of being wiped out, or if it believes the exchanges are on shaky grounds financially. Beijing doesn’t want a “Quadriga CX” to happen on its home turf, especially as its markets are recovering from COVID-19.

Still, Beijing understands that it may be tough going after a company that’s registered in a jurisdiction outside its territory. If it does take action, other companies and countries will watch with interest for any precedent that can be used against Chinese-owned companies with a presence in a foreign host country but offshore domiciliation. Should those companies become bothersome to their hosts, action could also be taken. 

The digital asset exchange market is almost wholly unregulated, which lends itself to being rife with bad actors. It doesn’t help that many exchanges are domiciled in jurisdictions better known for their low tax rates and loose securities laws than the acumen of their judiciary. Eventually there will be an exchange that sets up shop in a respectable jurisdiction, and works with regulators to operate their exchange and have financial products approved. This will help make the industry better respected and will excite investors to deploy more money to expand the sector. 

image 6
Ching Ming Festival is a holiday in China for honoring ancestors through sweeping their graves. Photo by: istolethetv

The concept of “Blockchain Plus” gained more traction in China as blockchain technology is applied to more parts of the nation’s economy, lifestyle and culture. Xinhuanet reports on the latest: an online tomb-sweeping platform created by Nanjing’s Civil Affairs Bureau, Big Data Administration and Veteran Affairs Bureau. 

  • The Nanjing government is keeping all cemeteries closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, ahead of the upcoming Ching Ming Festival — a holiday when families traditionally have paid respect to departed ancestors by visiting and sweeping graves. The municipal government is now encouraging people to participate in digital tomb-sweeping via blockchain. 
  • “The platform used blockchain technology, big data and other technologies to automatically match the deceased’s information to the library of 1.05 million deceased,” reports Xinhuanet. The platform creates a permanent space for the deceased. 

Forkast.Insights | What does it mean?

Tomb sweeping sounds macabre if you’re reading this and not well-acquainted with Chinese culture. But the significance of this is too large to ignore. In a culture that prioritizes filial piety, respect for the elders extends beyond the living. Families honor the deceased during the Ching Ming Festival to visit the graves of their ancestors, and “tomb-sweep” to pay homage and respect. This is a festival the Chinese have observed for 2,500 years. Fast forward to today’s Covid-19 restrictions and the importance of restricting non-essential movement. China is now radically remaking this bedrock tradition via blockchain. 

China has already proven that blockchain technology can be integrated into the software fabric of the public sector to preserve records. Usually this is life’s most important records, such as birth certificates, academic or industry credentials, and now, death certificates. 

But with this move to match up the deceased’s records with that of their living relatives, so they can “sweep” digital tombs, one has to wonder if this project could evolve into China putting its Hukou system on the blockchain. In China, the Hukou is one’s all-important household registration that provides the right to live in a certain region and access the region’s public services. Think of it as an internal passport and visa. Given the inequality of public services in China, there is an incentive to create forgeries of these documents. Although China already has an effective system in place for verifying Hukou documents, adding this pertinent information to the blockchain would give the government an extra layer of information security and also another tool for societal control, such as moving the masses online to sweep family graves.