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Navigating Bitcoin, Ethereum, XRP: How Google Is Quietly Making Blockchains Searchable

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It’s a balmy 80 degrees on a mid-December day in Singapore, and something is puzzling Allen Day, a 41-year-old data scientist. Using the tools he has developed at Google, he can see a mysterious concerted usage of artificial intelligence on the blockchain for Ethereum.

Ether is the world’s third-largest cryptocurrency (after bitcoin and XRP), and it still sports a market cap of some $11 billion despite losing 83% of its value in 2018. Peering into its blockchain—the distributed database of transactions underpinning the cryptocurrency—Day detects a “whole bunch” of “autonomous agents” moving funds around “in an automated fashion.”

While he doesn’t yet know who has created the AI, he suspects they could be the agents of cryptocurrency exchanges trading among themselves in order to artificially inflate ether’s price.

“It’s not really just single agents doing things on their own,” Day says from Google’s Asia-Pacific headquarters. “They’re forming with other agents to have some larger group effect.”

Day’s official title is senior developer advocate for Google Cloud, but he describes his role as “customer zero” for the company’s cloud computing efforts.

READ MORE | The Coffee Farmers Betting On Blockchain To Boost Business

As such it’s his job to anticipate demand before a product even exists, and he thinks making the blockchain more accessible is the next big thing.

Just as Google enabled (and ultimately profited) from making the internet more usable 20 years ago, its next billions may come from shining a bright light on blockchains. If Day is successful, the world will know whether blockchain’s real usage is living up to its hype.

Danish researcher Thomas Silkjaer is using Google’s BigQuery to map publicly available information about XRP cryptocurrency addresses. The craters represent some of cryptocurrency’s largest exchanges.

Last year Day and a small team of open-source developers quietly began loading data for the entire Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains into Google’s big-data analytics platform, BigQuery. Then, with the help of lead developer Evgeny Medvedev, he created a suite of sophisticated software to search the data.

In spite of a total lack of publicity, word of the project spread quickly among crypto-minded coders. In the past year, more than 500 projects were created using the new tools, trying to do everything from predicting the price of bitcoin to analyzing wealth disparity among ether holders.

When it comes to cloud computing, Google is far behind Amazon and Microsoft. Last year Google pocketed an estimated $3 billion in revenue from cloud ser­vices. Amazon and Microsoft, meanwhile, generated about $27 billion and $10 billion, respectively.

Day is hoping that his project, known as Blockchain ETL (extract, transform, load), will help even the playing field. But even here Google is trying to catch up. Amazon entered blockchain in a big way in 2018 with a suite of tools for building and managing distributed ledgers.

READ MORE |Blockchain Startups Showed No “Signs Of Life” In 2018

Microsoft got into the space in 2015, when it released tools for Ethereum’s blockchain. It now hosts a range of services as part of its Azure Blockchain Workbench. But while Amazon and Microsoft are focusing on making it easier to build blockchain apps, Day is focusing on exposing how blockchains are actually being used, and by whom.

“In the future, moving more economic activity on chain won’t just require a consensus level of trust,” says Day, referring to the core validating mechanism of blockchain technology.

“It will require having some trust in knowing about who it is you’re actually interacting with.” In other words, if blockchain is to go mainstream, some of its beloved anonymity features will have to be abandoned.

A native of Placer County, California, Day got his first computer at the age of 5 and a few years later started writing simple programs. A fascination with volcanoes and dinosaurs turned his interest to life sciences, and he ultimately graduated from the University of Oregon with a dual degree in biology and Mandarin in 2000. From there he headed to UCLA to pursue a doctorate in human genetics and helped build a computer program to browse the genome.

This Silkjaer image uses data for the XRP cryptocurrency to show the movement of funds across the entire ledger of transactions, culminating in a snapshot of funds in an actual user’s wallet.

It was at UCLA where Day began relying on distributed computing, a concept that is core to blockchains, which store their data on a large network of individual computers. In the early 2000s Day needed to analyze the massive amounts of data that make up the human genome. To solve this problem he hooked many small computers together, vastly increasing their power.

“Distributed-systems technology has been in my tool kit for a while,” Day says.

“I could see there were interesting characteristics of blockchains that could run a global supercomputer.”

Hired in 2016 to work in the health and bio­informatics areas of Google, Day segued to blockchains, the hottest distributed-computing effort on the planet. But the talents he had honed—sequencing genomes for infectious diseases in real time and using AI to increase rice yields—were not easily applied to decoding blockchain.

Before Day and Medvedev released their tools, just searching a blockchain required specialized software called “block explorers,” which let users hunt only for specific transactions, each labeled with a unique tangle of 26-plus alphanumeric characters. Google’s Blockchain ETL, by contrast, lets users make more generalized searches of entire ecosystems of transactions.

To demonstrate how customers could use Blockchain ETL to make improvements to the crypto economy, Day has used his tools to examine the so-called hard fork, or an irrevocable split in a blockchain database, that created a new cryptocurrency—bitcoin cash—from bitcoin in the summer of 2017.

This particular split was the result of a Hatfield and McCoy “war” within the bitcoin community between a group who wanted to leave bitcoin as it was and another who wanted to develop a currency that, like cash, was cheaper and faster to use for small payments.

Using Google’s BigQuery, Day discovered that bitcoin cash, rather than increasing so-called micro-transactions, as the defecting developers claimed, was actually being hoarded among big holders of bitcoin cash.

“I’m very interested to quantify what’s happening so that we can see where the legitimate use cases are for blockchain,” Day says. “Then we can move to the next use case and develop out what these technologies are really appropriate for.”

Day’s work is inspiring others. Tomasz Kolinko is a Warsaw-based programmer and the creator of a service that analyzes smart contracts, a feature of certain blockchains that is designed to transparently enforce contractual obligations like collateralized loans but with less reliance on third parties, like lawyers. Kolinko was frustrated with his blockchain queries.

READ MORE |Ugandan Firm Uses Blockchain To Trace Coffee From Farms To Stores

In December, Kolinko met Day at a hackathon in Singapore. Within a month of the meeting, Kolinko was using Google’s tools to search for a smart contract feature called a “selfdestruct,” designed to limit a contract’s life span. Using his own software in conjunction with Day’s, Kolinko took 23 seconds to search 1.2 million smart contracts—something that would have taken hours before.

The result: Almost 700 of them had left open a selfdestruct feature that would let anyone instantly kill the smart contract, whether that person was authorized or not. “In the past you couldn’t just easily check all the contracts that were using it,” Kolinko says. “This tool is both the most scary and most inspiring I’ve ever built.”

Day is now expanding beyond bitcoin and ethereum. Litecoin, zcash, dash, bitcoin cash, ethereum classic and dogecoin are being added to BigQuery. Independent developers are loading their own crypto data sets on Google.

Last August, a Dutch developer named Wietse Wind uploaded the entire 400 gigabytes of transaction data from Ripple’s XRP blockchain, another popular cryptocurrency, into BigQuery.

Wind’s data, which he updates every 15 minutes, prompted a Danish designer named Thomas Silkjaer to create a heat map of crypto flows. The resulting colorful orb reveals at a glance more than a million crypto wallets, including big ex­changes like Binance and London’s crypto debit card startup Wirex, which are neck deep in XRP transactions.

“Google has been a bit of a sleeping giant in blockchain,” says BlockApps CEO Kieren James-Lubin, who is partnering with Google to sell enterprise blockchain apps.

In addition to Day’s work, Google has filed numerous patents related to the blockchain, including one in 2018 to use a “lattice” of interoperating blockchains to increase security, a big deal in a world where untold millions of crypto have been stolen by hackers.

The company is also pushing its developers to build apps on the Ethereum blockchain, and Google’s venture arm, GV, has made a number of significant investments in crypto startups.

The giant, it seems, is waking up.

-Michael del Castillo; Forbes Staff

Health

Warning: COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps Could Be Turned Into Tools For Domestic Abuse

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If governments don’t focus on strong privacy protections in their COVID-19 contact tracking tools, it could exacerbate domestic abuse and endanger survivors, according to a warning from women’s support charities.

They’ve urged the U.K. government to include domestic abuse and violence against women and girls (VAWG) experts in the development of such initiatives.

Though the U.K. doesn’t yet have a widely available track and trace app, the charities – including Women’s Aid and Refuge – are already anxious enough about the current tracing program, where infected people are called up and asked to register themselves online as someone who has contracted COVID-19. They’re then asked to share details on people with whom they’ve been in contact so they too can be informed.

In a joint whitepaper, the nonprofits said they were anxious about contact tracing staff inadvertently leaking contact details of survivors to perpetrators. They also raised fears the program could be turned into a “tool for abuse.” 

“For example, perpetrators may make fraudulent claims that they have been in contact with survivors in order for them to be asked to self-isolate unnecessarily, and in these circumstances survivors will have no means to identify the perpetrator as the original source,” they warned. “Perpetrators or associates may also pose as contact tracing staff and make contact with victims [or] survivors requesting they self-isolate or requesting personal information.”

The paper also claims abusers are already using the coronavirus pandemic for “coercive control,” in some cases deliberately breathing, spitting and coughing in survivors’ faces. As Forbes previously reported, the sharing of child abuse material has also spiked during global COVID-19 lockdowns.

As for apps, the report warned they required location services to be switched on. “While the NHS app itself doesn’t collect location data, if a perpetrator has installed spyware onto a survivor’s phone or is able to hack into it, then turning on location services will expose their location.”

Problems with Palantir?

The charities also raised concerns about a number of companies who’d partnered with the U.K. on the contact tracing initiatives. They said Serco, which is handling recruiting for contact tracing staff, “has a significant track record of failings and human rights violations, including running a controversial women’s immigration detention centre where staff have been accused of sexual misconduct and involvement in unlawful evictions of asylum seekers.” Serco also recently had to apologize for leaking email addresses of contact tracer staff.

Serco denies that it has any kind of significant track record of failing and human rights violations and that the evictions to which the charities are referring were in Scotland and were ruled legal. It also said that in seven years there had been no substantiated complaints about any sexual wrongdoing at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, where reports had revealed allegations.

“We are proud to be supporting the government’s test and trace programme with our Tier 3 contact centre team working from pre-approved Public Health England scripts. This is important work and we would like to thank all our teams who have stepped forward. In just four week we mobilised many thousands of people, which is a huge achievement, and we are focussed on ensuring that all our people are able to support the government’s programme going forwards,” a Serco spokesperson said.

Palantir, the $20 billion big data crunching business, also raised an eyebrow. The company, which has secured millions of dollars in contracts to help health agencies manage the outbreak, has come in for criticism for assisting U.S. immigration authorities on finding and ejecting illegal aliens.

Palantir hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

UK’s delayed COVID-19 app

The charities’ warning comes as the U.K. announced its contact tracing app would be shifting to the Apple and Google models, which promise stronger privacy protections than the app being tested by the government. The main difference is in where user information goes. In the government’s app, anonymized phone IDs of both the infected person and the people they’ve been near are sent to a centralized server, which determines who to warn about possible COVID-19 infection. In the Apple and Google model, only the phone ID of the infected person is sent to a centralized database. The phone then downloads the database and decides where to send alerts. The latter means the government has access to far less data on people’s phones, pleasing some critics but aggravating the government.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday that Apple’s restrictions on third-party apps’ use of Bluetooth may’ve been one reason the government’s own app wasn’t as successful as hoped. Bluetooth is being used to determine whether an infected person has been in close proximity with another person’s phone.

Earlier this week, Amnesty International cybersecurity researcher Claudio Guarnieri warned that global rollouts of contact tracing apps were a privacy “trash fire.” After analyzing 11 apps, he found many contained privacy shortcomings. So concerned was Norway that it suspended its tool.

Even with lockdowns easing, those who’re infected are still being advised to isolate. However,  the NHS guidance says that “the household isolation instruction as a result of Coronavirus (COVID-19) does not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse.” That message may not have been amplified as much as it should’ve been.

Thomas Brewster, Forbes Staff, Cybersecurity

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Technology

Twitter Begins Asking Users To Actually Read Articles Before Sharing Them

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TOPLINE Twitter announced Wednesday that it will test a new feature that will prompt users to open up a link to an article before sharing it, which appears to be a move to further combat the spread of misinformation on the platform.

KEY FACTS

  • Some Twitter uses may be subject to a prompt to click on a link if they try to retweet without reading the article first, billed by Twitter as a feature “designed to empower healthy and informed public conversation.”
  • English speakers on Android devices will be the first to see the tests.Users will still have the ability to retweet a message without clicking the link first if they chose to tap through the prompt.
  • According to Twitter Support, an official company account, the platform will only check if a user has clicked the article link recently through Twitter, not elsewhere on the internet.
  • Twitter denied some skeptical users’ accusations that the platform is testing the feature to establish a revenue stream via click-through to outside websites, saying the platform is not testing ad products with the prompts.
  • Twitter Support told one user it would watch to see if reminding users to read an article before they share it leads to more informed discussion.

CRUCIAL QUOTE

“It’s easy for links [and] articles to go viral on Twitter. This can be powerful but sometimes dangerous, especially if people haven’t read the content they’re spreading. This feature (on Android for now) encourages people to read a linked article prior to retweeting it,” Twitter product lead Kayvon Beykpour commented upon the announcement of the feature testing.

KEY BACKGROUND

The new prompt tests are the latest Twitter effort to curb the spread of misinformation on the platform. Twitter last month displayed fact-check tags on two of President Donald Trump’s tweets that featured misleading information regarding mail-in ballots and voter fraud. Twitter also rolled out testing for a new feature to allow users to limit who can reply to their tweets. The platform has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle in recent weeks, from conservatives over accusations of censorship and from the left for not doing enough to stifle misinformation.

Carlie Porterfield, Forbes Staff, Business

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Finance

Op-Ed: From Cashless To Digital: The Covid-19 Tipping Point

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People’s safety concerns about transmission through contact has resulted in Covid-19 becoming a catalyst for the adoption of cashless payments globally and even more so in South Africa, with the disruption expected to effect lasting changes in the way people transact with cards and cash.  

While consumers had already begun to embrace digital payment options prior to the pandemic, the health crisis is rapidly accelerating the adoption rate with more consumers seeking safer, contact-free payment methods.

This rapid adoption of digital payments will help shape a new normal as businesses begin to emerge from the more stringent levels of lockdown regulations and attempt to navigate their post-Covid-19 futures.

Derek Cikes, Commercial Director at Payflex, says the pandemic represents a watershed for the payments industry.

“The acceleration towards a cashless society is one of the key opportunities that has emerged from the pandemic, bringing the advantages of digital payments  to the fore including lower fees,  convenience, seamless delivery, greater security, and more flexible payment options,” says Cikes who adds that what makes this trend so interesting, is that historically, people used to hoard cash in times of crisis. Now, the opposite is occurring.

A study by MasterCard revealed that since the beginning of Covid-19 in South Africa, 89 percent of South African respondents have been using contactless methods to pay for groceries, 60 percent for pharmaceutical items, 39 percent for other retail items, 15 percent for fast food, and eight percent for transport.

Similarly, recent figures from Bain echo this, with estimates that by 2025, the adoption of digital payments could accelerate by a 5 – 10 percentage point increase globally, above what was previously anticipated at 57% before Covid-19 to 67% after Covid-19.   

Are contactless payments here to stay?

Cash is perceived as a vehicle for the transmission of the virus. As stores, restaurants and other merchants begin to open their doors again, contactless payments are key in providing consumers with a much-needed sense of comfort and reassurance.


“Businesses have no option but to rethink their use of shared payment surfaces, with customers more conscious than ever of what they touch. People don’t want to touch ATM or PIN pads or have to hand their cards to store tellers.  Once viewed as a convenience or nice-to-have, digital payments are now viewed as a critical service, providing a solution to limiting contact with other surfaces,” says Cikes.

Creation of new payment habits

From banking facilities like tap-to-pay, payment apps such as Zapper and Snapscan, to digital banking and e-wallet providers, South African fintech firms have reported significant increases in the use and adoption of digital payment methods since the outbreak began in March. The simple truth is, while these channels provide a convenient way of paying, they are also contactless, allowing consumers to pay for their goods while not having to exchange cash or cards with merchants.

“The perception of cards and cash as vehicles for transferring microorganisms has changed how people physically interact with their payments in favour of contactless options. With health and safety being top priorities, we anticipate this trend to become more permanent with hygiene measures and social distancing likely to become part and parcel of our daily realities for years to come,” says Cikes.

Retailers drive adoption of digital payments

Both online and brick and mortar retailers are helping to accelerate this trend with stores like Mr Price enabling consumers a contactless way to pay in-store pay via their app, and most South African retailers offering tap-to-pay-methods. There is also an expected uptick in omnichannel capabilities (being able to sell your goods through many channels such as website, app, retail, third-party platforms such as Amazon or Shopify) which bridges payments in any environment, physical or digital.

Another contactless payment method driving this trend is e-wallets with over 500 million mobile money users expected on the continent in 2020. In addition, it is anticipated that the capabilities of digital wallets will expand to offer features such as digital IDs and transaction monitoring and reporting, which is expected to create even more growth for this payment mechanism.


Flexibility needed more than ever

According to TransUnion’s Financial Hardship Survey, conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, Hong Kong and South Africa, one in six people lost their job in early May, with defaulting on their bills just seven weeks away. 82% of consumers indicated their household income had been impacted, and on average, consumers who were impacted, expect they will be short by R 7 542.90 when paying bills or loans.

“Many people are financially stretched and need the support of alternative payment solutions to help manage their cash flow without incurring further credit card debt,” says Cikes.

A report by GlobalWebIndex shows that 83% of South African consumers are expecting flexible payment options from brands.

“We have seen this play out in the increased uptake of our Payflex Buy Now Pay Later payment solution, which allows people to make interest-free payments over two paychecks,” says Cikes.

With health, safety and financial security at the forefront of consumer sentiments, companies will need to provide payment options which meet these consumer needs.

“Digital payment solutions provide an avenue which safeguards against physical interaction, enabling both consumers and business to navigate the environment as the economy is restarted.  These digital adoptions will not only help manage the current situation but will also have far-reaching benefits, facilitating a more customer-centric, efficient and resilient economy,” concludes Cikes.

-Derek Cikes, Commercial Director, Payflex

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