A recent article on the World Economic Forum website rightly asked some tough questions about the ability of blockchain to change the world for better. The argument was that it was dangerous to place all our faith in this new technology to solve our digital security issues.
While it is true that blockchain is not a “magic bullet” that should be blindly trusted, there are other factors at play here. The idea is not to replace human trust with trust in machines but mathematically demonstrated trust.
Blockchain is a new technology with the ability to transform our everyday lives. It is an invisible technology, it works behind the scenes. It is like the internet today: you cannot see it, but you know it is there working for us. One of its key features is also immutability, meaning the records cannot be retrospectively changed; this is an integral point to any discussion about blockchain and security.
Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin were the first real-use case of blockchain, but that wave has since come and gone. Problems in the cryptocurrency sector do not negate the benefits of blockchain in other sectors, where it will often be used to supplement rather than wholly replace existing security systems. Every technology has flaws, but blockchain seems to spook some people because, in terms of security, it has relatively fewer flaws.
The article also mentions the story of a deceased CEO whose $150 million funds were inaccessible after death, but then goes on to say the company “failed to implement proper checks and balances to prevent such a scenario.” So this is a problem generated by poor implementation, not a shortcoming of the technology.
The authors are correct to say it could take years for the blockchain industry to converge on security standards, but just because mass-implementation is around the corner, it does not mean it will be rolled out too soon. This is for two reasons: firstly, development in the blockchain sector is moving at lightning speed. Secondly, if blockchain is rolled out en-masse before developers feel it is ready, then this is a problem again with human trust, not the technology. If you cannot cut an apple with a blunt knife, the problem is not with the knife, but that the knife was not sharpened before use. It is important to remember that blockchain is still in the development stage.
Problems in the cryptocurrency sector do not negate the benefits of blockchain in other sectors, where it will often be used to supplement rather than wholly replace existing security systems.
Code, consensus mechanisms, and communication protocols all have the potential to host vulnerabilities that can be exploited for malicious use. But blockchain is currently a divergent technology: multiple protocols and programming languages are being developed in parallel. As a result, it is difficult for developers to acquire the experience needed to secure their code, while most are under stringent time pressure to deliver.
The solution is increased training and education. Regarding the threat of quantum computing breaking cryptographic algorithms, this issue essentially solves itself. Quantum computing can only do this because it is advancing, as it advances its costs will decrease and the technology will become more widely accessible, in turn allowing blockchain developers the ability to create defences against it. It is important to remember that quantum computing is still in the experimental phase. Blockchain offers new security features which may not be for every person or every software, but for some it is precisely what it is needed - we should use it only where it makes sense to be used.
Blockchain is not a finished product, and like all other software products, it will never reach a final form. Why? Because it can and will always improve. There are no magic bullets, only better bullets.
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Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
Esther Stanford-Xosei: Jurisconsult, Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe (PARCOE).
Ronnie Galvin: Managing Director for Community Investment, Greater Washington Community Foundation and Senior Fellow, The Democracy Collaborative.
Chair, Aaron White: North American economics editor, openDemocracy