A good friend once told me that a Cryptocurrency (using a version of the blockchain database) was going to change the world in much the same way that money did the first time round, and he insisted that (he felt) it would do so for the greater good. Perhaps by affecting power structures from the bottom-up, by taking the huge amount of power which printing and lending money creates out of the hands of the few – overturning the global financial system – he mused.
At the time, this particular train of thought seemed reasonable to me, and in many ways despite a rocky start (due to its association with the deep web drugs trade,) Bitcoins, or more specifically cryptocurrencies (that utilize a blockchain, of which the Bitcoin is merely a prototype,) do appear to be a force for good in the long term – and this is not where the vision for a blockchain revolution stops.
There have already been some successful attempts to create new services using the blockchain, and it certainly does appear that it is an incredibly versatile and complicated bit of code. Bitmessage is a peer to peer platform that creates a secure way of messaging, and Namecoin creates an alternative to the domain name system, for example.
Blockchain enthusiasts even see it as a way to create a whole new form of telecommunications. Arguing that the way in which this exciting new infrastructure creates trust, without the need of a third party, could in theory be harnessed to create a new World Wide Web with a deeply ingrained form of privacy – an alternate internet born out of the kind of transparency that the NSA, GCHQ or any other security agency could not pervert in the way that they have every other form of electronic communications.
As with everything that seems to be a force for good, however, and much like in the movie Star Wars, an Estonian company called Guardtime appears to have now found a way to harness the force of the Blockchain for darker purposes. Let me explain…
It is pretty clear that the NSA, even now, is unclear about what Snowden took when he stole the documents which have now come to be known as the Snowden files. Yes, it knows that sensitive documents were taken, because it knows what has been released to the public so far, but despite its ability to collect vast amounts of communications from its citizens (and foreigners), the NSA remains clueless as to the scope of what was actually taken by Snowden during his time working in Hawaii.
The reason for this is that, despite the NSA having tools in place to track who accessed data, and when, Snowden (who had administrator capabilities in the system,) was able to delete and modify log files as he went along, in order to cover his tracks to such a degree that he left the powerful NSA a clueless victim of his efforts. Fantastic.
Now, however, a company called Guardtime says it has come up with the solution to the NSA’s problem, boasting that if its technology had been in place, famous whistleblower Edward Snowden would not have been able to gather his important revelations without also alerting the NSA – not only allowing the security agency to know exactly what was taken – but probably alerting it early on enough to stop Snowden completely in his tracks.
Guardtime claims that by harnessing the power of the Blockchain, its new technology, Black Lantern, would be able to stop anyone and everyone from corrupting a system, including the highest levels of management. This means that future whistleblowers following in the footsteps of Snowden would be stamped out before they even got out of the office door. Saddening.
Guardtime explains that in the same way that the public ledger system (blockchain) creates transparency in the Bitcoin market by distributing all transaction data back to every user, Black Lantern also distributes all the information in a digital system back to everyone else, meaning that no one person could ever alter anything without also alerting the mainframe.
Despite the fact that Black Lantern would have stopped Snowden in his tracks, the way that Guardtime has harnessed the power of the blockchain actually creates a very clever system that must be credited with a certain degree of praise for the incorruptible security that it would afford any business that took it on. Indeed, it is easy to comprehend what the firm means when it says that large organizations could utilize Black Lantern to secure its assets. Company CTO Matt Johnson, a former agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and defense contractor, observes,
‘It keeps honest people honest, it makes it impossible for them to lie.’
Although last year IBM proposed a very similar type of technology, Guardtime has proven to be one step ahead, having already rolled out their product within the Estonian Government’s systems, who are using it to protect data archives and patient health records. It has also formed a partnership with telecom company Ericsson, in order to sell Black Lantern to private firms.
So how does it work? One important thing to get your head around when contemplating this new technology, is that the information in a system is not actually fed back to every user, as this of course would have security implications of its own (not every person that uses a system is necessarily supposed to know everything else.) Instead, what actually occurs is the creation of a cryptographic hash (which is a long chain of numbers.) This cryptographic hash is what is stored on the blockchain, and it is this code that is fed back to every user, and which cryptographers can analyze to see whether information has been tampered with.
Guardtime explains the benefit of this with the example of the Estonian government’s use of Black Lantern within its health care records system. All records can be monitored, and no one can alter any record without everyone else knowing about it, and yet nobody’s health care records are actually shared. No Hippocratic oaths are broken, and everyone gets to keep doctor patient confidentiality.
Although privacy advocates and campaigners will always be wary of any product that boasts an ability to stop the next whistleblower from revealing important information to the world (which citizens ought to know,) I have to admit that Black Lantern’s ability to make systems secure is not really as black and white as all that. The possible advantages of the system, are, at heart, just as enormous as the possible disadvantages that it would create should it be taken on by national intelligence and security agencies to stop future whistleblowers.
However, while Black Lantern could be used to hold governments accountable – by stopping politicians from deleting sensitive information (or being revealed as corrupt criminals,) for example, or even by making sure that terrorists or hackers have not altered vital information – unfortunately it is much more likely that governments will dedicate funds to making intelligence agencies more secure in the future than they will to setting up systems that could be used to hold them accountable. For this reason, despite the good that Black Lantern could be used for, in a world where governments keep implementing ever more draconian surveillance methods, over all one does get the feeling that Black Lantern was indeed given a befitting name.