By Andrew Faught
When Robert Leach ’04 graduated with an undergraduate degree in information systems, Facebook was a new Internet sensation that offered users a chance to post life updates and commemorate special occasions on a virtual “wall.” The company then sold – and continues to sell – personal information to advertisers.
Nearly two decades later, ongoing development of the so-called Web 3.0 is decentralizing the Internet, enabling end users to own much of their personal data, which has historically resided with behemoths such as Facebook, Google and Gmail. The companies then sell personal data. Leach, for his part, has joined a movement to give Internet users – college students and new graduates, in particular – more control of their personal information.
In February, he and his business partners launched mintED, a service that attaches meaningful documents – everything from diplomas and admission letters, to collectible mementos such as concert and football tickets – with an “immutable, verifiable, and tamperproof” mark of authenticity. The designation, known as a nonfungible token (not a physical token), is akin to a watermark that organizations, such as universities, would affix to “digital assets” such as PDFs and images.
“The Internet is evolving, and we’re on a mission to enable everyday users to be part of that digital evolution – to own their data, their content, and their achievements,” Leach says. “Digital ownership is at the heart of Web 3.0, and we’re working to provide students with digital keepsakes aligned to their experience and achievements,” Leach explains. “Paper certificates usually end up in a drawer or poster sleeve, emails don’t properly commemorate your achievements, and existing digital records are often behind paywalls that students aren’t even aware of until post-graduation. Providing a publicly verifiable digital record for these milestones is a better product for the end user. Plus, it saves paper.”
New York City-based mintED is piloting the technology at four organizations, including several universities. Leach says mintED allows students to maintain control of their data. “Owning your digital records is part of a larger movement around self-sovereign identity, which Web 3.0 helps enable,” Leach says. “It’s the concept that your memberships, affiliations, achievements, and credentials are all stored in your digital wallet or digital backpack and can’t be jeopardized in the event centralized organizations change their terms of service.
mintED’s efforts are being made possible by the introduction of “blockchain” technology. In short, a blockchain is a decentralized digital “ledger” in which data are validated and viewable by the public, as opposed to behind corporate private databases. “It’s a public database, if you will,” Leach says. “Once something is written to that public ledger, it cannot be undone; it’s permanent and non-transferable.” For now, Leach and his colleagues are educating potential clients about Internet decentralization and the promise of credentials ownership. “We’re on the early adopter curve at the moment,” he adds.
Leach says his UMD degree helped him become a problem solver, “and it really positioned me well to start this business.” After graduation, he was a guest lecturer for more than five years at Columbia University, where he taught a graduate-level course on business analytics and strategic intelligence. Leach has been using his imagination, and considering the art of the possible, since he was a teenager.
“I was always an early adopter of technology, and I’ve always loved building things, and applying technology to solve problems,” says Leach, whose workdays stretch far beyond the 9 to 5. “I’ve always kind of dabbled with the newest technologies out there to see how they could be used.”
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