After Facebook, another tech behemoth with an unprecedented level of control over people’s data is turning to blockchain to amplify that power.
Wanxiang, an enormous Chinese car manufacturer, has partnered with a little known blockchain-ish startup, PlatON, to help develop the underlying infrastructure of an in-progress “smart city” in China that Wanxiang has funded and named after itself.
Wanxiang has pledged $29 billion to the project, dubbed Innova City but also referred to in the press release as “Wanxiang City,” which will occupy an 8.3 km sq plot of land in Hangzhou, in Zheijang province. It is tapped to become “China’s largest, most interconnected, blockchain-powered smart city,” and PlatON’s blockchain-based “solution” will supposedly be able to “track, transfer, and secure critical data such as resident identification cards and smart devices.”
It looks like Innova City will be a honeytrap for its citizens' data, which will be harvested and farmed off to machine learning algorithms. PlatON will undergird a transport system that “tracks and rewards responsible driving behaviour,” among other things, according to Vincent Wang, Chief Innovation Officer at Wanxiang Holdings. Some 90,000 people in total are expected to move in by 2025.
Weirdly enough, PlatON CSO Ada Xiao might not have gotten the memo—in the press release, she gestures repeatedly to the project’s privacy features, and insists PlatON “can ensure the privacy of sensitive data including digital identities of residents, smart equipment, and personal devices, as they interact with one another on a shared ledger.”
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But China, whose senior officials don’t think decentralization is possible because there’s no way to “get rid of the center,” appears to mostly be using blockchain technology for surveillance purposes. While Walmart and Amazon and Deloitte appear content to use blockchain to manage dreary supply chains, China has gone straight to tracking citizens: last year it unveiled a parolee-tracking blockchain, and its upcoming cryptocurrency, for which it has stacked an obscene number of blockchain patents in preparation, will likely just be the yen on an open ledger.
But still, the technology will apparently also serve more benevolent purposes. According to the press release, PlatON will be used to “monitor driving behavioral data to train auto-driving systems, as well as to record and monitor electric vehicle life cycles, including their batteries to manage ecological waste efficiently, among other use cases”—which sounds good and useful!
A blockchain even makes sort of sense in this context, and fulfils the use case of the independent, Internet of Things-powered infrastructure dreamed of by Ethereum boosters, in which value is exchanged between machines, on behalf of the people who use them, without any intermediary (because who wants to sign their Tesla up for a Wells Fargo account?). There's only one snag: PlatON models itself as a "high efficiency" blockchain network, which it achieves through a system called "verifiable computation," which dates back to 1991 and appears to involve outsourcing data to nodes for subtasks, which isn't exactly a regular blockchain.
Still, there's no turning back the block clock. As Wired reported last year, Hangzhou proper has already relinquished its citizens’ data to a thing called City Brain, developed by tech giant Alibaba, that lets an artificial intelligence manage aspects of the city’s infrastructure, including traffic, on which it has apparently caused a significant improvement. Notably, Alibaba gathers the data, but the city—controlled by the government—owns it.
And now they’re putting it on a blockchain. Sort of.