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Taiwan startup Numbers tackles fake news head-on with blockchain technology


Coming across a photo on social media, would you believe how the user interprets it -- to draw others’ attention to what has happened or to support the ideas they believe? Probably yes, and this is reasonable. We simply can’t afford to verify all the information we have access to. Even if we want to, it’s extremely difficult if not impossible for us to do so -- because there’s virtually no way to trace the source of, say, a picture or video.

In the meantime, most of us are aware that we live in an era of fake news. With malicious intent or not, individuals, organizations, and even governments are spreading misinformation to manipulate public opinion over social media platforms and beyond.

For example, on Twitter, a photo of a scene at the "Je Suis Charlie" demonstration in 2015 was shared as evidence of the Yellow Vests taking to the streets to protest against a surge in oil price. Also, a video Donald Trump tweeted in which some thousands of protesters chant his name as they dodge tear gas in Paris turns out to be a lie.

Under such circumstances, it’s not surprising to see a lack of trust in media outlets around the world. Taiwan startup Numbers is launched in 2019 to tackle this issue. With blockchain, the team develops an app named Numbers Capture that is able to ensure the integrity of a digital image over its life cycle. “We’d like to rebuild people’s trust toward data,” the team told Business Next.

In a video conference, Numbers team explained that the issue of trust has two aspects. From the perspective of the person who takes a picture (data producer), whether a random individual or journalist, they would not know if their photo is copied, misused, or edited and then re-published as it circulates on the Internet. Meanwhile, for those who use a picture (data consumer), there’s no guarantee that it’s the exact version produced by the original photographer instead of a photoshopped version.

Numbers Capture

In order for data to be trustworthy, it needs to be traceable, and for Numbers, this means that to “capture its source” and record it on the blockchain. Whenever a user takes a picture with their phone, the Numbers Capture app will hash its metadata (like when, where, how, and with what type of device the picture is taken) and other relevant data (like weather and temperature) in order to generate a digital footprint. It will later be encrypted and uploaded to the blockchain.

In the meantime, the picture itself will be encrypted and stored in a distributed file system (InterPlanetary File System; IPFS); however, Numbers also offers the option for their clients to store their pictures on a private cloud, in case some shy away from keeping their data in a decentralized system.

A scenario for a user to utilize the app is when they provide a picture to news sites, co-founder Sophia Yen told Business Next. They will be able to prove that their material isn’t tampered with by granting access permission to the digital evidence previously recorded on the blockchain. In addition, an AI algorithm is implemented to help news sites verify the source.

Similarly, with Numbers’s service, a user can ensure their evidence is sufficiently reliable to be admitted at trial.

Ms. Yen pointed out one of the advantages of their product is that it’s more than a mobile app. Instead, it integrates with some Canon cameras so that photos taken with them can be rendered traceable, too.

The startup’s B2B model involves providing SDK for image source capturing, integrating the app with an existing storage system, and maintaining the entire system that allows users to record data and verify its integrity; they also plan to provide the service to end users like photographers, bloggers and Youtubers, who will be charged based on the number of pictures they take.

“We are ourselves data producers,” Mr. Yen said. “It’s vital that we know who uses our data and how it’s used.” She also recognized the necessity of educating the general public about the issue of data ownership and verifiability.

Currently, Numbers has been offering their service to international news sites (in the US and Europe), NGOs, war correspondents, and independent photographers. Their partners include hTC Exodus and Binance, who has invested an undisclosed sum in the startup.

Ms. Yen told us the startup has taken the first step in combating fake news by making data traceable and verifiable, and the next step is to build a platform for users to trade and monetize their personal data.