Blockchain is everywhere. In a way, it’s a victim of the rule of accidental value – just like Viagra was originally used to treat high blood pressure, not cause it, so cryptocurrencies intended to make mediums of exchange totally decentralized have actually centralized mining in just a few companies and seen the creation of, not a free currency, but an artificial asset class.
Now that the blockchain isn’t just ‘whatever it is that makes BitCoin work,’ tech folks the world over are trying to figure out exactly what it is, then.
The answers they’re coming up with are fascinating.
For some, the blockchain is just a buzzword.
For others, it’s a way to build security in at the bedrock level. There’s something intriguing happening here if you’re interested in keeping yourself secure online. But to understand tit you have to understand how blockchain actually works. Let’s get under the hood.
What exactly is a blockchain anyhow?
Blockchains are chains of blocks. A block is a body of information about what everyone on a network has done, that the records of everyone else on the network agree about.
There’s more, but it’s technical windowdressing.
Blockchains are what you get when you take a block from the day before yesterday, a block from yesterday and a block from today and, yes, form them into a chain.
What this means is that blockchains are inherently unhackable.
Why you can’t hack the blockchain
Hacking works by breaking, sneaking or blagging your way past a system’s defenses to its vulnerable core. Once you’re in the driving seat you can order the system to do new things – like give you all its money.
But blockchains have no driving seat. To rewrite the history of a blockchain and overcome its inherent security advantages you’d have to be the sole owner of 51% of the accounts connected to it for a long enough period of time to force the whole system to agree with your rewrite of history. That’s the opposite way around from most networks.
Trust and security
It also means that you and I can do business over a blockchain network without ever needing to trust each other, secure in the knowledge that the whole network will validate our transaction. Blockchains are capable of delivering the benefits of a high-trust environment – most notably, massively reduced externalities devoted to maintaining security – without any actual trust at all.
So blockchain technologies deliver two key advantages: trustless trust, and security-free security.
Let’s look at a couple of interesting ways these technologies are being leveraged.
Provatix is a good indicator of the potential future of blockchain-powered VPNs. The company offers its users a true P2P VPN, in which users buy spare CPU capacity and exit node use from each other through blockchain-certified transactions.
This process cuts down on data use, accelerates internet access and makes it incredibly tough, at least in theory, to shut the whole VPN down at once by attacking its servers.
To learn more about how that would work, read the company’s white paper here.
Like many businesses in the blockchain space, it’s worth looking back a bit at what they were doing before the term became a license to mine money. A few months ago, Privatix was a free VPN – one of many in a crowded market. Their adventures in blockchain are a recent development; a clear idea of who’s doing blockchain VPN well isn’t easy to get yet.
For instance, the Mysterium network operates in a similar way. Are they a better or a worse choice, security-wise? The user base and standards of comparison don’t yet exist to make that call.
One step beyond: carpeting the whole internet
Getting VPNs to run on the blockchain might be the least of it, if Justin Tabb has his way. A software engineer of 15 years’ standing, Tabb’s Substratum company is much more revolutionary.
Previous attempts to utilize security protocols have been aimed at combating power imbalances within a fundamentally open network – at coping with instances of untrustworthiness in a trust-based system. The internet is an extremely open system without additional protective layers of encryption, which is fine – until there’s money to be made from spying on you or stealing from you. But attempts to make the whole system behave and obey are likely doomed to failure for the same reason.
In the past, we’ve acted like we needed to protect our traffic, on Al Franken’s famous precept that it’s easier to wear slippers than to have the whole world carpeted.