Any social media user knows the drill. Posting, sharing, liking or uploading any personal information to websites these days is now done with some amount of trepidation for many, thanks to a growing mistrust of sites like Facebook or myriad third-party apps on the market.

The advent of social media was supposed to make our lives easier, more connected to our friends, family and the world. However, a darker, more sinister side has emerged from behind our computers, tablets and smart phones.

In this day of data information and exchange, behind every ‘like’, emoji, or ‘about me’ auto-fill form, is a hidden entity that has the ability to take your most personal information without your consent and sell it to a company or government agency for profit – again and again and again – with zero return or benefit for the data providers.

Now there is a new freedom fighter located in the Cayman Islands who has emerged to put those ‘hidden entities’ – namely data miners, data analysts and data brokers – in their place with a cutting-edge blockchain technology; and if all goes as planned, it will pave the way for a more transparent world, where ethics and morality prevail over profit and gain.

Enter Brian Gallagher, CEO of Digital Consulting Group SEZC, a subsidiary of Insights Network based in Cayman Enterprise City’s Tech City. He and co-founders Darwin Lo and Brandon Zaucha are changing the way we engage in data.

The company has built the world’s first user-owned secure consumer database via blockchain technology that restores privacy rights and data ownership to individuals rather than corporations.

In other words, this technology allows consumers to host all of the data they generate on the internet on their devices in fully encrypted form, rather than on central servers.

If corporations or market researchers want access to this data, they can instantly pay for it on the blockchain and receive the data in a consensual exchange provided by the user, via ‘tokens’ and surveys.

“We wanted to come up with a solution that puts the data back into the user’s control,” says Gallagher.

The dark side of the internet

Gallagher makes Grand Cayman his home now but has been coming to the Islands since 2005 for annual scuba diving family trips. It has been a dream for the 29-year-old entrepreneur and Y-Combinator alumni to have a Cayman- based business.

“As a kid, it had a magical feeling to it,” he says. “It seemed cool. And I always had it in the back of my mind, but I didn’t know it would come about this way.”

Fast-forward to 2014, when the idea for Insights Network came about while he was involved with another start-up in San Francisco along with Zaucha. It was an online wine retail marketing business that went from US$2,000 in revenue per month to $80,000 per month in under 90 days – all after acquiring an email list from a company that went out of business.

They used that list to blast a promotional campaign, an elaborate giveaway offer involving a trip to Napa Valley.

However, despite the large jump in revenue, it was increasingly difficult to make money on the logistics side of the business. Gallagher had been taking control of the supply chain in order to streamline it and found that electronic data transmission was infinitely scalable.

Around the same time, data brokers began approaching the company to purchase its user and supply chain data.

“We began to realise that the profitable value was in the data we were generating. We had massive purchase data on users and it opened up our eyes to a whole new business,” says Gallagher. “This was the best-kept secret in Silicon Valley in the last 20 years. It’s all about the data.”

Gallagher then segued into another business involving mapping data for a food service delivery app. At the time, surveys and customer experience feedback were a new and growing market and data brokerage, in particular, was a multi-billion dollar industry.

“Data brokers do all the analysis and resell for more. But we started seeing the darker side of the industry. We would be asked to get identities through Facebook login, age and gender. We thought this was bizarre, so we did more investigation and found out that data brokers had advanced profiling on almost every American citizen or they knew between 300 and 2,000 pieces of data on you.”

He went from finding out fast food eating habits and customer experiences to now knowing what kind of credit cards they used; the kind of car they drove; if they had an open mortgage; or how many kids they had.

“All that data went into a server for a data broker who would then get to sell it once, twice, a million times, but the customer didn’t realise that or get any cut or revenue,” he says.

In 2016 new legislation making this data use more transparent was pending in Europe and started to come to the forefront. It is now a law under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). “But in the USA it is still a free-for-all and will remain so until the big tech companies get broken up,” Gallagher says.

When the partners wrote their white paper ahead of launching Insights Network in 2017, they also included an appendix on Cambridge Analytica’s use of data. The now defunct British political consulting firm had been combining data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication during the electoral processes.

Six months later, in early 2018, a major political scandal emerged when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising purposes.

It was a watershed moment in the public understanding of personal data and led to a massive fall in Facebook’s stock price, as well as calls for tighter regulation of tech companies’ use of data. Gallagher and his team were given what he calls “street cred” from the tech world for mentioning it before it hit the mainstream media.

“We were at the right place at the right time,” he says.

As the investigation continued, more documents were unearthed. In a New York Times article, it was revealed that Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, got Facebook users’ friends; Spotify and Netflix received access to users’ messages; Amazon received names and contact information. And, of course, Facebook got things in return.

Gallagher says, “Facebook was the biggest offender. It had so much data on everyone that everyone syphoned off it.”

How Insights Network works

The decentralised system runs on a blockchain-based automated smart contract, a software that facilitates the direct connection between end-users.

“The system allows people to house all of that same data that was taken from them – mostly voluntarily, through different platforms – and puts it back into the palm of their hands while still allowing the people trying to get the data to go directly to them by paying for it and without the need for a middle man,” says Gallagher.

The company seeking the data purchases it with tokens before receiving targeted information on demographics, habits, preferences, etc.

“Users can fill out surveys at their own free will in a fully transparent manner, with each survey outlining what data users will be providing. Payment is offered in tokens, which can then be converted to cryptocurrency and exchanged with other users or businesses,” he adds. “It’s your choice to say yes or no.”

The benefits of this type of transparent exchange includes higher quality data; the elimination of identity management and qualifying questions that traditional surveys often include; and lowered costs due to cutting out third parties, i.e., the data brokers.

The platform is free to download via the Instar Wallet app and can also be assessed at instarwallet.com. All that is required is to create a verified account and take the surveys.

The future of crypto and bitcoin

Gallagher says the company’s “disruptive business model”, along with many other crypto- and blockchain-based companies today, is leading to a paradigm shift. The biggest challenge is changing the perception of cryptocurrency and educating people on how it all works. The company is working on making the system more user-friendly, and he says that it would help if more people knew how to code. In the meantime, the company offers learning labs on cryptocurrency.

Gallagher believes cryptocurrency will be commonplace in the future, and due to the blockchain’s full governance model, it will eventually eliminate governments and set the masses free from autocratic regimes.

Some of the biggest retailers already accept bitcoin as payment. For example, Whole Foods in the US; Amazon, too, has it in the works. And with Facebook’s recent announcement to launch its own global cryptocurrency, ‘Libra’, in 2020, privacy concerns have been raised once again. There are 27 other major companies involved in the Libra project that critics say will lead to the elimination of the dollar and breakdown the traditional banking system; companies like PayPal, Mastercard, Visa, Uber and Spotify, to name a few.

Critics are concerned this will lead to Facebook tapping into even newer wells of data, while advocates say it will help the 1.7 billion people around the world who do not have access to basic financial services. Whichever way you look at it, Gallagher says, it is the future of money. And in fact, he already pays employees, marketers and contractors in bitcoin every day.

“We are privileged people in a global society. We can swipe our card anywhere and it’s like magic, but think about people in Brazil or Turkey or the Philippines, where there are disastrous economies, in particular the fiat currency.

“They are left out of the traditional banking system, so for them, it’s amazing because for the first time in history they can have value delivered to them across the border for free that they can take and exchange in a local economy setting or for a bitcoin, which has a global-use case.

“Bitcoin is worth as much in London as it is in the Philippines, but unlike the dollar or the pound, you don’t need a bank account. You are your own bank. That is why cryptocurrency is the future because it’s a global currency. It’s free to send like a MoneyGram, without the need for a bank account as a custodian.”

A self-described “paranoid rebel” in his younger years, Gallagher is now changing the world – one survey at a time. Now, if the world could just rein in that Facebook.