Blockchain is a Highway: Blame the Drivers, Not the Road

blockchain privacy internetBlockchain technology offers great potential to revolutionize how we store, access, and share data digitally. From protecting our digital identities to sharing photos of cats (the favorite pastime of the Internet), blockchain is simply a new way to transmit information. Any information. And just like previous technologies used for the same ends, that information could be malicious instead of harmless. That’s why I wasn’t quite as shocked as others when the news broke about illicit material found buried in the Bitcoin blockchain. Saddened, but not surprised.

Let me explain why.

Blockchain is a Highway

Consider a highway. Two to six lanes. Paved. Painted lines and street signs. Cars travel on it heading to and from various destinations. Those cars could be carrying families going on vacation. They could also be carrying drugs. The highway isn’t the blame for what’s in the cars traveling on it. It’s a tool. Think of blockchain in the same manner.

With any technology, you have to consider what it does, and how it is being used, separately. Illegal activity happens on the Internet, just like highways, every day. The blockchain offers a way for information to be stored and shared irrevocably, which may complicate matters when it comes to illegal activities, but at the end of the day, it’s still a tool. We need to blame the user for illegal and illicit activity, not the tool itself. Blockchain also offers a new way to establish trust relationship via cryptography rather than governments, human relationships, and institutions (e.g., central banks). This is not to say these methods are flawed and blockchain is perfect, but that a new and complementary method that may be more scalable is also available.

No Technology is Foolproof

We need to remember that, just as any technology can be abused, that misuse shouldn’t shadow its potential for greatness either. The physicist Richard Feynman used to quote a Buddhist proverb: “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.”  Blockchain has many advantages to offer. The same challenges it poses when used illegally open up previously unthought of potential for digital identity, privacy, and security. Blockchain allows for transparent, unalterable, secure record keeping that still protects individual privacy. The decentralization of how we store, share, and control data on the blockchain puts ownership of personal information like our identifiable data back in the hands of the individual instead of companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook. This doesn’t just reduce the risks of data breaches, it allows for the delivery of a verifiable digital identity to millions without current access to said documents. And organizations like Hyperledger and ID2020 are already exploring the potential of this idea.

In Veridium’s webinar, “How Blockchain Facilitates Self-Sovereign Identity,” WSO2’s Sr. Director of Security Architecture, Prabath Siriwardena, explores this topic further.