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distributed ledger technology

Blockchain: Merits, Issues, and Suggestions for Compelling Use Cases

* This post was also published in ACRL TechConnect.***

Blockchain holds a great potential for both innovation and disruption. The adoption of blockchain also poses certain risks, and those risks will need to be addressed and mitigated before blockchain becomes mainstream. A lot of people have heard of blockchain at this point. But many are unfamiliar with how this new technology exactly works and unsure about under which circumstances or on what conditions it may be useful to libraries.

In this post, I will provide a brief overview of the merits and the issues of blockchain. I will also make some suggestions for compelling use cases of blockchain at the end of this post.

What Blockchain Accomplishes

Blockchain is the technology that underpins a well-known decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. To simply put, blockchain is a kind of distributed digital ledger on a peer-to-peer (P2P) network, in which records are confirmed and encrypted. Blockchain records and keeps data in the original state in a secure and tamper-proof manner[1] by its technical implementation alone, thereby obviating the need for a third-party authority to guarantee the authenticity of the data. Records in blockchain are stored in multiple ledgers in a distributed network instead of one central location. This prevents a single point of failure and secures records by protecting them from potential damage or loss. Blocks in each blockchain ledger are chained to one another by the mechanism called ‘proof of work.’ (For those familiar with a version control system such as Git, a blockchain ledger can be thought of as something similar to a P2P hosted git repository that allows sequential commits only.[2]) This makes records in a block immutable and irreversible, that is, tamper-proof.

In areas where the authenticity and security of records is of paramount importance, such as electronic health records, digital identity authentication/authorization, digital rights management, historic materials that may be contested or challenged due to the vested interests of certain groups, and digital provenance to name a few, blockchain can lead to efficiency, convenience, and cost savings.

For example, with blockchain implemented in banking, one will be able to transfer funds across different countries without going through banks.[3] This can drastically lower the fees involved, and the transaction will take effect much more quickly, if not immediately. Similarly, adopted in real estate transactions, blockchain can make the process of buying and selling a property more straightforward and efficient, saving time and money.[4]

Disruptive Potential of Blockchain

The disruptive potential of blockchain lies in its aforementioned ability to render the role of a third-party authority obsolete, which records and validates transactions and guarantees their authenticity, should a dispute arise. In this respect, blockchain can serve as an alternative trust protocol that decentralizes traditional authorities. Since blockchain achieves this by public key cryptography, however, if one loses one’s own personal key to the blockchain ledger holding one’s financial or real estate asset, for example, then that will result in the permanent loss of such asset. With the third-party authority gone, there will be no institution to step in and remedy the situation.

Issues

This is only some of the issues with blockchain. Other issues include (a) interoperability between different blockchain systems, (b) scalability of blockchain at a global scale with large amount of data, (c) potential security issues such as the 51% attack [5], and (d) huge energy consumption [6] that a blockchain requires to add a block to a ledger. Note that the last issue of energy consumption has both environmental and economic ramifications because it can cancel out the cost savings gained from eliminating a third-party authority and related processes and fees.

Challenges for Wider Adoption

There are growing interests in blockchain among information professionals, but there are also some obstacles to those interests gaining momentum and moving further towards wider trial and adoption. One obstacle is the lack of general understanding about blockchain in a larger audience of information professionals. Due to its original association with bitcoin, many mistake blockchain for cryptocurrency. Another obstacle is technical. The use of blockchain requires setting up and running a node in a blockchain network, such as Ethereum[7], which may be daunting to those who are not tech-savvy. This makes a barrier to entry high to those who are not familiar with command line scripting and yet still want to try out and test how a blockchain functions.

The last and most important obstacle is the lack of compelling use cases for libraries, archives, and museums. To many, blockchain is an interesting new technology. But even many blockchain enthusiasts are skeptical of its practical benefits at this point when all associated costs are considered. Of course, this is not an insurmountable obstacle. The more people get familiar with blockchain, the more ways people will discover to use blockchain in the information profession that are uniquely beneficial for specific purposes.

Suggestions for Compelling Use Cases of Blockchain

In order to determine what may make a compelling use case of blockchain, the information profession would benefit from considering the following.

  1. What kind of data/records (or the series thereof) must be stored and preserved exactly the way they were created.
  2. What kind of information is at great risk to be altered and compromised by changing circumstances.
  3. What type of interactions may need to take place between such data/records and their users.[8]
  4. How much would be a reasonable cost for implementation.

These will help connecting the potential benefits of blockchain with real-world use cases and take the information profession one step closer to its wider testing and adoption. To those further interested in blockchain and libraries, I recommend the recordings from the Library 2.018 online mini-conference, “Blockchain Applied: Impact on the Information Profession,” held back in June. The Blockchain National Forum, which is funded by IMLS and is to take place in San Jose, CA on August 6th, will also be livestreamed.

Notes

[1] For an excellent introduction to blockchain, see “The Great Chain of Being Sure about Things,” The Economist, October 31, 2015, https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21677228-technology-behind-bitcoin-lets-people-who-do-not-know-or-trust-each-other-build-dependable.

[2] Justin Ramos, “Blockchain: Under the Hood,” ThoughtWorks (blog), August 12, 2016, https://www.thoughtworks.com/insights/blog/blockchain-under-hood.

[3] The World Food Programme, the food-assistance branch of the United Nations, is using blockchain to increase their humanitarian aid to refugees. Blockchain may possibly be used for not only financial transactions but also the identity verification for refugees. Russ Juskalian, “Inside the Jordan Refugee Camp That Runs on Blockchain,” MIT Technology Review, April 12, 2018, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610806/inside-the-jordan-refugee-camp-that-runs-on-blockchain/.

[4] Joanne Cleaver, “Could Blockchain Technology Transform Homebuying in Cook County — and Beyond?,” Chicago Tribune, July 9, 2018, http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/ct-re-0715-blockchain-homebuying-20180628-story.html.

[5] “51% Attack,” Investopedia, September 7, 2016, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/1/51-attack.asp.

[6] Sherman Lee, “Bitcoin’s Energy Consumption Can Power An Entire Country — But EOS Is Trying To Fix That,” Forbes, April 19, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/shermanlee/2018/04/19/bitcoins-energy-consumption-can-power-an-entire-country-but-eos-is-trying-to-fix-that/#49ff3aa41bc8.

[7] Osita Chibuike, “How to Setup an Ethereum Node,” The Practical Dev, May 23, 2018, https://dev.to/legobox/how-to-setup-an-ethereum-node-41a7.

[8] The interaction can also be a self-executing program when certain conditions are met in a blockchain ledger. This is called a “smart contract.” See Mike Orcutt, “States That Are Passing Laws to Govern ‘Smart Contracts’ Have No Idea What They’re Doing,” MIT Technology Review, March 29, 2018, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610718/states-that-are-passing-laws-to-govern-smart-contracts-have-no-idea-what-theyre-doing/.