Could blockchain technology have prevented Twitter VIP hacks?

It’s my pleasure to welcome right now Salah Zalatimo. He is CEO of Voice, the blockchain-enabled social media network platform that’s really taking on crypto and blockchain-enabled capabilities and challenging the stalwarts of the day like Facebook. Salah, it’s great to finally get a chance to talk with you.

Salah Zalatimo: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to speak to you too. Thank you for having me on your show.

Lau: All right. Just a few months in with the launch of Voice, you launched in February of 2020. And in the few short months you’ve been battling as you’ve launched the business, we’re all in lockdown mode and now there is this huge breach on Twitter. First, what was your reaction?

Zalatimo: It was unfortunately not surprising to see. I think that the challenges that we have today on not just social media, but just in general with security across the web are not new. And that’s something that many of us in the blockchain community have been speaking about and really tried to forewarn about to some extent, because as technology gets stronger and stronger, the ability to breach security and different types of digital defense become increasingly more available to people.

And so our ability to secure our own user’s personal data and our own personal data for ourselves really needs to evolve with those technologies. And that’s what really we’re all about at Voice, and that’s part of the reason why we’re built on a blockchain backbone.

Lau: So when you say it’s not a surprise, how are you building that security into the architecture of Voice? And how do the users know that they’re being protected?

Zalatimo: Great question. On Voice, we’re very focused on using cryptographic security. And so using the combination of blockchain and secure keys and secure even to the extent that we’ll be able to offer hardware keys as well, is really part of the requirements around having a digital currency. And so by having a cryptocurrency on Voice, the Voice token, we have to also make sure that our ability to protect our users’ data and their tokens ultimately are on par with financial security for banks.

Not just on par, actually even better, because the power needed to break through the keys that we’re using for our user login are far, far more advanced and complex to a potential bad actor or hacker than what currently is being used by many banks, let alone places like Facebook and Twitter.

Lau: You published an open letter and I think it just reflected the frustrations that we all feel about social media is that, we’re conducting our lives here on social media platforms. It’s as a Silicon Valley veteran said to me yesterday, this is an essential service almost, it has become a socially essential service. And so why haven’t security investments in R&D been put in place in really well-resourced, well-capitalized, billion-dollar companies?

Zalatimo: It’s a really great question. I think the way you framed it is also very [important], because when Facebook was founded, when Twitter was founded, when the social media platforms of today were founded, nobody would have expected for somebody 10 years, 15 years later to make that statement, that this is now an essential item. This is now something that we need as a society to function.

In many ways, people feel trapped by the current social media platforms because there is a somewhat of a requirement or a need to use it. If you ask people what the primary way of getting in touch with friends or friends they’ve lost touch with is, they would immediately tell you Facebook and so many people use Twitter to get their news and use Instagram to keep up with their friends and use Reddit to discover new information. It is really something that has grown way beyond anybody’s wildest imagination.

If we knew then what we know now, I think we would have built these very differently. And I think not just from a security standpoint, from an accountability standpoint, from a transparency standpoint, it really requires something that the users can depend on and can actually influence and participate in. And so all of those things are why we felt the need to build Voice, because we have the opportunity now to build a social media platform that is geared to be something that actually can fulfill that role in society in a much more equitable and inclusive and accountable way.

And part of doing that is being able to trust the platform that your information and your data and potentially your money are [in are] very, very secure. And so that’s something that we take very seriously from the outset.

Lau: So how would you advise Twitter right now? Could blockchain have prevented this?

Zalatimo: Well, I think it’s not blockchain alone that would prevent it. Ultimately, in its most abstract sense, blockchain would replace the underlying databases of Twitter. But what blockchain would enable is the ability to represent interactions in the form of transactions. And those transactions are built on the same principles that bitcoin are built on. So you have more fundamentally secure interactions and transactions and therefore the ability for outside forces to interject themselves into those processes, which is in an abstract sense, how this type of hacking happens, becomes significantly more difficult.

So in other words, it’s like taking your security out of the 90s and bringing it into the modern day, because these platforms don’t have the ability to go back and re-engineer all their foundational technologies. But the bad actors and the hackers, they are definitely keeping up to date with new technologies and new computing power, new techniques for breaking through those.

So, unfortunately, what I would tell Twitter is start investing in more secure technologies. I would definitely look at blockchain first and start treating your platforms as things that should be secured just like a financial transaction should be. It’s more of a mindset to me than it is a technology.

Lau: If you had KYC-enabled algorithms and encryption that really allow for that that pipeline of interaction, even if it’s just sharing an idea or sharing a conversation, but it’s absolutely tied in the same security level of KYC (know your customers) for banks, that reduces a lot of this noise that we’re experiencing right now.

The things that actually are really weighing down — the trolls, the bot attacks that we’re experiencing, the political attacks, the coordinated attacks that we’re seeing around the world, but especially here in Asia. You’re one of the first, but also there are other blockchain-enabled social media platforms out there. But how are you thinking about those things? As we kind of rush into the 21st century, fake news, deepfakes, bot attacks. How does blockchain enabled social media help us kind of clean that up?

Zalatimo: That’s one of the topics that I’m most passionate about. And that’s one of the reasons that we really felt like the requirement of verifying identities of people on their way into the platform so that we can significantly reduce the noise once inside, really felt like a must have. And no other platform has done it yet because obviously it creates a lot of friction and it makes growing very large, very fast, a little bit more difficult.

So instead of us backing away from that challenge, we went straight at it because we believe that figuring this out is really critical to creating a social world that is free from that type of pollution and manipulation. You would be stunned if you did a quick Google search on fake accounts on Facebook and the numbers that they themselves report over the past two years, they’ve identified and removed over 8.7 billion fake accounts. It’s a staggering number to really think about. There are only 7.5 billion people on Earth.

It’s really staggering to really think about how much of the information you yourself see, let alone people that are maybe less discerning in the world see, that is manipulated by fake accounts and by bots. And so if somebody has the ability or the technical know how to deploy an army of bots on Facebook with hundreds of thousands of fake accounts, they can move sentiment, they can move ideas. They can take ideas from obscurity and make them trending ideas simply by creating these bot farms and like farms. So for us, it’s critical.

We want to be in a place when you come on to Voice, you know that you are getting real news. You know that you are having real discussions with real people. And it’s something that actually in 2020 sounds kind of like a pipe dream. It’s like how could you possibly do that, knowing what you know today on social media? Well, if we start a little bit differently and we build this from the ground up with a commitment to verifying identities and putting humans above machines and bots at all touch points, and in all ways, it actually is possible. And we’ve already seen it. We’re very, very excited about what we’re about to roll out over the next few months.

Lau: How many fake accounts of you removed on Voice?

Zalatimo: Thus far, we have not removed any fake accounts. We have been very, very diligent. In fact, when we started because you’re so committed to this. We are very committed to verifying identities and opening humans first. So that means that verifying identities must happen on the way in. And we have to stay vigilant throughout the entire user lifecycle. And so from a highly accurate process, when people are entering the platform, we also do checks in the background asynchronously, so that just in case anything did slip through. We can identify it and flag it and perhaps have somebody review it.

We started off with traditional KYC because even though it is the most aggressive approach to doing this and we know that it’s not something that is truly scalable, it was the best available option to us. And we’ve been working very hard over the past few months to create a new and proprietary sign up process, which is much lighter and does not require any government documents, but can verify that you are indeed a living human being and that you are unique in the platform.

So the sign-up process, we have endearingly called internally as “human sign up,” will be released on August 15th to friends of users on the platform. So we will allow first before opening the platform to the general public, we’re first going to have a period where only registered users who have requested and have been granted early access, we’ll be inviting their friends on and they’ll be doing that through this new human sign up, which we’re very excited to roll out.

Lau: How many users do you have now?

Zalatimo: We’re currently not sharing specific numbers on that, because we’re in our closed beta, but we are hoping to to ramp up quite significantly over the coming months and we will be happy to share those numbers as we move down the road a bit further.

Lau: One of the reasons why I ask is because if your friends are not using the social network platform that you’re on, you’re kind of stuck where everybody is until we see that kind of migration. Despite Cambridge Analytica, despite what we’re seeing as a sponsor bleed-out from Facebook, costing billions of dollars to market cap. Despite all of that, people are still very much tied to these social media platforms, despite these credibility breaches.

So at what point are we going to see that kind of tipping point, when are we going to see that kind of mass adoption? How are you going to achieve that in a way that other social media, blockchain-enabled social media platforms like Steemit have failed to do thus far?

Zalatimo: That’s a great question, Angie. I think that’s exactly where most people get stuck. I think the idea that we need a better social media is not a new one. And it’s one that, quite frankly, is supported by the majority, it’s near unanimous. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world that would tell you that social media today is perfect and it can improve. But the challenge is, how do you then create a competitor or an alternative social media when we all know that it is dependent on reaching a critical mass. And so the way we think about this is in stages.

We’re not aiming to build a replacement to any of the social media platforms. We’re aiming to build an alternative. And right now, there is not a place where you can go to ensure that you’re engaging with actual people, that you’re having discussions on real substantive topics where you can actually engage with people that are like-minded, both from an interest standpoint that could be a geographic community-based platform. And so the way we think about it is that we need to start small, build a community, really hone and mature our product with our most early adopters and our most loyal users, and right now we have over 75,000 people on our waiting list to get in.

So the demand is there and there are people committed to pursuing an alternative to today’s social media. And that group of early users are really the key to getting us to the mass market. So once we’ve engaged with that community and we’re able to work through all of the features and the enhancements and the optimizations that we know are needed, especially with a platform that is so new.

We are the first really tokenized social media platform that is pursuing it, and really has a good shot at getting to scale. So our plan is to first start there and then scale up from there over the coming 12 months. And so we really think we’re in a moment in time right now where the need for a new social media is greater than ever. In fact, it feels like it’s really reaching a fever pitch. So we think we will be able to start small by identifying that passionate user base and then we’ll grow from there.

Lau: We’ve got a new user right there, right behind you, he’s ready to go. But that’s a great segue, to your point of view. KYC is not going to protect a platform from points of views that are, racially biased, sexist, all of those things that Twitter and everybody else have a heck of a time trying to police. You don’t want to censor. You want to celebrate free speech. But at the same time, how do you think about that when it comes to governance or even policy as you really moderate these? Or do you even moderate some of these discussions?

Zalatimo: At Voice, one of our core principles is empowering communities to self-govern. What we mean by that is, in a platform, as you mentioned before, in a type of platform that is so essential to society today, there must be accountability in the community themselves, and the users must be able to influence how that community is managed and the policies around the community. So it is something that we hold very dearly.

If you step back and think about this from knowing then what we know now, you would want the people running an organization like Facebook to have some public accountability to their user base, to be able to, when they’re debating what what policies they should or shouldn’t implement for moderating content, we should have a say in that. And so that’s something that’s a very simple belief that we have. That is one of our core values that we’re building into the Voice platform.

Lau: Do you have controversial conversations on Voice and how do you deal with it?

Zalatimo: Absolutely. Content moderation is a fascinating topic. The way it’s discussed today is, especially with all the discussion around Trump and his tweets and hate speech on the platforms, it’s really, really fascinating to think about because it is an area that corporations in general have struggled with, because it’s very clear what is legal, and what is clearly illegal. And so it’s easy for platforms to moderate that content.

The content that is in the gray area and hate speech falls in the gray area, which is not illegal, but it is objectionable, is really where they struggle. And we believe that it’s actually not their responsibility to make that judgment. They are the ones that have the power to enact change and to moderate. But we fundamentally don’t believe that they should be the ones determining what shouldn’t and should be moderated or how. We believe that power resides with the people.

So we are committed to a Voice from the onset pushing that power back down into the community. If we step back and think about this and try to compare it to the real world. The way that current social media platforms are handling this top down from the corner office is not a way that society functions today.

We’ve had democracies for centuries now. And the reason for that is because people should have the ability to influence and participate in the overall governance structure and policies of their platforms and of their communities. As you noted, these platforms have become that. Social media is not just a fun luxury, it is a necessity. And it’s something we all depend on and the society depends on. And so we feel it’s important that we empower communities to help govern themselves.

Lau: I think to your point, when people are authenticated and they’re real people because the background checks have been done, and all of that has been encrypted and it’s protected and the trust is there, it kind of lends to a different kind of social courtesy instead of hiding behind anonymity and the rest, which increasingly with technology like deepfakes, it’s just easier to trick these days.

Have you thought about how you are going to be evolving as some of these deepfakes and technology tricks are evolving as well? Have you thought about applying AI, for example, and integrating that with blockchain? How are you thinking ahead?

Zalatimo: So I think you’ve put your finger on something very, very important, which is that there’s no one single thing we can do to fix all of the problems of today’s social media. But if you start with a community that is verified, so you lack anonymity and you lack the ability for people to simply close an account, open a new one, which many refer to as burner accounts, you’re now creating a sense of accountability. So this is your account. It’s your account for life.

And so bad behaviors and bad actors can’t run and hide from that. And that to me, already we’ve seen that it’s had a significant impact in a positive sense on the amount of hate speech that we’ve seen on the platform organically. So I think by building a better foundation, the problem in and of itself changes and really begins to solve itself in some ways. And so there is still work to be done and we still need to remain vigilant on this. But if we lean on people and humans to work together, to identify misinformation, to identify deepfakes, to be able to track content and data on a verifiable blockchain, these things change the discussion.

It’s one of the things that I find difficult to try to convey. And really, we’re taking the approach of just wait and you’ll see, which is if you fundamentally change the ethos and the building blocks of your platform, a lot of today’s problems wouldn’t exist. And so the world is focused on making incremental improvements right now on what’s going on with social media platforms. But ultimately, it takes a more fundamental change to really solve these problems.

Lau: Well, Salah, it was a pleasure to talk with you. I think there’s no doubt in our minds at least, that the pendulum is swinging wildly. And for it to get back to fulcrum is really what we’re all trying to hope for and achieve and participate in. So thank you so much for joining us on Word on the Block. It was a pleasure.

Zalatimo: Thank you. I really appreciated it. And thank you also for your patience with my son. That was a challenge with these work from home times to do an early morning interview, but I appreciate it.

Lau: Absolutely. This is the new normal. He is the perfect example of why we’re building what we’re building, because he’s part of the future that we hope for a better tomorrow. So, Salah, thank you. And thank you to the rest of you for joining us on this latest episode of Word on the Block. I’m Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau. Until the next time.