The current digital advertising model is fundamentally flawed: it lacks transparency and takes away users’ privacy. Advertisers don’t know if anyone actually views their ads, and users don’t know who has access to their data.
Glimpse, backed by ConsenSys’ Tachyon Accelerator, is looking to fix the advertising paradigm. It’s a new privacy protocol, aiming to give users complete control over data and create a more equitable digital advertising model.
The project was launched last year by Tim Holmes-Mitra and Alasdair Macdonald, two British Army officers who first encountered the technology in 2013. At the time they were part of a small community of officers interested in cryptocurrency and blockchain. “We had a bunch of mining rigs in the Officers’ Mess,” explained Macdonald.
The military gave them a key insight into the techniques governments and tech giants use to exploit internet data. Modern-day cybersecurity is less about “shutting down a tank,” Holmes-Mitra explains, and more about on collecting meta-data and building profiles that predict the movements of those that potentially represent a security risk.
Digital advertisers do something similar when they try to identify what users are likely to buy. But the Cambridge Analytica and Equifax scandals revealed only “the tip of the iceberg,” according to Holmes-Mitra. “I’m still constantly surprised by just how much data is hoovered up by these companies.”
The problem is that many internet users still don’t really understand how important data privacy is, Holmes-Mitra says. Most apps, even seemingly innocuous ones, start sending data back to Google, Facebook or Apple long before users give consent to sharing data.
“You may not even have a Facebook app, but apps that have been enabled by Facebook can still send your data back to the company,” Macdonald added. “They have a profile on you before you have an account, they are still tracking you.”
A Glimpse Of The Future
The simple truth, according to Macdonald, is that “all bets are off when you have given up or lost control of your data.” Once it’s out, data companies can quickly package it and sell to third party advertisers.
Glimpse looks to protect users not just by making their data private, but ensuring that it never actually leaves their devices in the first place. It flips the dynamic: rather than data going to the advertisers, the ads go to users.
Instead of showing you a pre-selected ad, the protocol brings a whole selection of ads to your device and stores them in a ‘Vault.’ The Glimpse app processes user data, which remains private, and selects the most appropriate ads to show to the user.
This means that when a user goes onto a website, an ad is brought out from the ‘Vault’ and displayed on the site. If someone downloads an app, the vault for that site would be packaged with it.
If a user clicks on the ad, they receive a small micropayment of Dai – a small share of the advertising revenue – to incentivize them to continue interacting with digital advertising.
Advertisers can also load up campaigns and distribute them to users via Glimpse. This will allow them to publish, manage and track existing campaigns, as well as calculate key metrics to gauge their success.
The app also adds another layer of security: each time a user interacts with an ad, Glimpse creates a new Ethereum address. This allows users to remain anonymous on the platform, and prevents advertisers from building up profiles from users’ interaction patterns.
Why does it need blockchain?
The Glimpse protocol works on Ethereum (ETH). Ads are automatically matched to users via smart contract, and zero-knowledge proofs ensure identities remain private.
Users are the only ones authorized to look at their data. Since the protocol is built on Ethereum, users can decide which attributes the protocol can use and can change them if necessary. If the app is ever deleted, the users’ data profile is completely destroyed.
Blockchain is a secure storage method, and there is no single repository which can be targeted by hackers. But it also ensures users have complete control of their data. “If you used a centralized server you would have something very similar to the existing system,” said Holmes-Mitra. “On a decentralized system, you truly have control of your data, rather than pseudo-control.”
Arriving At ConsenSys
Glimpse joined the Tachyon accelerator 2019 programme at the beginning of April. The accelerator has given them access to experts at the cutting edge of blockchain development, including leading figures in smart contract writing.
“It’s easy to see crypto as full of day traders and scam projects like Bitconnect,” said Holmes-Mitra. “But the people actually building the Ethereum ecosystem are serious and committed to this dream of decentralization.”
“We couldn’t have asked for a better partner than ConsenSys,” added Macdonald. “Being picked up by a serious player was a real sense of validation.”
Why should we have control of our data?
There are clear benefits to giving users control over their data, Macdonald argues. They can avoid spammy emails and selectively determine what type of ads they want to see.
Not only does Glimpse help protect user data, it may also make ads more accurate. “Literally all that ever leaves your phone is a ‘yes’ when you first interact with an ad and a cryptographic stream that makes no sense,” said Holmes-Mitra. Users could be more willing to interact with advertisements, he says, if their data were not at risk.
Advertisers are also likely to benefit. “We don’t hate advertisers”, Macdonald stresses. “It drives awesome free services and underpins how the internet economy works.”
By using the Ethereum blockchain, it’s also easier for advertisers to determine if their viewers are human, and effectively work out if a campaign has met its outreach target.
Other blockchain-based digital advertising models, like the Brave Browser (BAT), don’t solve the root cause of the problem, according to Glimpse’s founders, because users will still lack control of their data.
Glimpse wants digital advertisers to be part of the solution. “We want to be integrating with the current system, building an additional security layer on top of it,” said Holmes-Mitra. “Not blocking ads altogether and getting people to reinvent how they deliver ads altogether.”
“The majority of these companies aren’t evil, there’s just no alternative available now”, he adds.
Protecting Your Data
Glimpse is only part of the solution, says Macdonald, to giving users complete control of their data. “If we were a standalone app then we wouldn’t stand a chance,” he said.
But the world is beginning to wake up to the importance of data privacy. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect across the EU last year, not only gives users complete ownership over their own data, but also the right to know how their data is being used. They can also demand companies delete any data they have on them.
“We [Glimpse] hope to be part of a real societal shift”, said Holmes-Mitra.
Thanks to Lesa Moné of ConsenSys for contributing her technical expertise and writing to this piece.
Tachyon is a 10-week accelerator program by ConsenSys Ventures that takes early-stage blockchain projects from idea to viable MVP. The second iteration of the Tachyon Accelerator kickstarted on April 1st, 2019, at the Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, and the projects will present their progress in San Francisco on May 22nd, 2019.
Crypto Briefing has partnered with the Tachyon Accelerator to highlight a handful of the imaginative projects that are looking to change the world with Ethereum.
We are not compensated by any organization for our work.