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2020 Vision: 7 Trends Bringing Blockchain Into Focus in the Year Ahead
2020 Vision: 7 Trends Bringing Blockchain Into Focus in the Year Ahead
This post is part of CoinDesk’s 2020 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. David L. Shrier is a futurist and globally recognized authority on financial innovation, with dual appointments at MIT and the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. His next book, Basic Blockchain, is being published in January 2020 by Little Brown (Hachette).
2020 brings us the start of a new decade, and with it comes the gradual maturation of blockchain technology, bringing it down from the stratosphere to tangible impact on real-world problems. We may be a turning point for the industry.
These seven trends are bellwethers for the industry’s health I will be tracking in 2020, as we move from experimentation to implementation:
1. Blockchain, naturally
A challenge I have found over the past several years of educating blockchain entrepreneurs in over 130 countries in my work at MIT and University of Oxford is the need for more compelling use cases. Not just any use case, not just any scenario where distributed ledgers might be applicable, but natural uses cases where blockchain is clearly a superior platform versus other database technologies. I am hopeful 2020 will bring a more acute perspective from the industry on where blockchain is best used and scaled.
2. Games people play
The $300 billion videogame industry and the $94 billion online gambling world (near-term projected growth) represent interesting application areas for blockchain.
John D’Agostino, founder of Digital Assets Working Group, says, “Gaming and commodification of the gaming experience” is what’s in for 2020. He goes on to state that he sees opportunity in “combining the theoretical fungibility, transparency and security of blockchain databases along with the ease and portability of tokens to create new markets for digitally native assets and experiences like online gaming.”
(What’s out, asserts D’Agostino, is “blaming securities laws for your bad business model.”)
3. Bitcoin is back (or it never left?)
Bitcoin remains the most financially successful blockchain project to date, with a market capitalization of more than $130 billion at this writing. For the longest time, heeding the words of my collaborator Meltem Demirors, I would tell people that you can train a mediocre bitcoin developer in a year or a competent ethereum developer in a month.
Bitcoin is idiosyncratic, a hack of hacks, a giant kludge that outgrew itself a long time ago. Ethereum and other newer protocols were developed more self-consciously with third-party development in mind. And yet, bitcoin is suddenly top-of-mind again, and I have anecdotally been hearing of various bitcoin-protocol projects under way.
Jack Dorsey, as it happens, is moving to Africa for several months, and in relation to that views bitcoin in the African continent as a game changer. Indeed, Michelle Chivunga, advisor to the African Union, says, “With the Africa Free Trade Area agreement in line to transform the continent, Africa is in strong position to play a leading role in the digital revolution tapping into key technologies like blockchain. Africa’s time is now.”
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4. China giveth and China taketh away
The People’s Republic of China, in a matter of weeks, announced a warm embrace of blockchain on the one hand and began aggressive enforcement actions against crypto companies on the other.
Tracking price movements of bitcoin recently has given me whiplash. I have long told people I don’t speculate for my own account because I can’t predict the price movements of crypto well enough to make money. November is a good example as to why. I also note that in some regards bitcoin represents a competitor for the newly announced RMB central bank digital currency, so the Chinese government has a vested interest in talking down the price.
5. Central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) at center stage
For the past several years I have been spending increasing amounts of time with governments and multi-governmental bodies, discussing how to shape innovation policy that supports fintech and blockchain. My colleagues and I have been seeing rising interest in central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), not only with China and Venezuela, but in a variety of nations, large and small.
Simon Chantry, co-founder of Bitt.com, tells me:
“In 2020 we saw many Central Banks investigating and in some cases testing various blockchains and distributed networks for use in the financial system. While initially hesitant to move efforts forward past the test phase, the emergence of competition in the form of private sector digital currencies and ‘stablecoins’ has prompted Central Banks worldwide to evolve their own technology strategies. I suspect we will see more tangible progress on Central Bank-issued digital currencies in 2020, as Central Banks seek to leverage many of the technological advancements that have taken place over the past decade to provide their countries and economies with advanced, secure, and efficient payment systems.”
Chantry should know. Bitt.com is credited by many insiders as originating the first blockchain-based CBDC in 2020.
We expect more CBDCs to be announced in 2020, and with them a greater focus on cross-border interoperability.
6. ‘Custody is king‘
Sometimes the “plumbing” of the financial system, while less glamorous than token offerings or a new ewallet, is essential for any of the other great ideas proposed around blockchain to function. One such area is custody, the physical or electronic holding of assets for safekeeping, and a gating condition for serious institutional investment in digital tokens and cryptocurrencies.
“Absent robust custody standards the industry can never scale,” according to SALT Chairman Ben Yablon. “Single founders disappearing with hundreds of millions of dollars in value shouldn’t and won’t be allowable if the space is ever going to reach its potential.”
The industry is going to work out better standards and practices around custody in 2020 – or risk another Cotten.
The Government of Mauritius, gateway to the African continent, has planted its flag in the sands of digital asset custody. It’s not such a dumb bet. State Street’s $32 trillion empire is built on custody of securities.
7. Cybersecurity? What’s that?
I never cease to marvel at the fact that cryptocurrencies, developed by cryptographers and sometimes (often) held by highly (and healthily) paranoid people who seek ultimate security for their money (not even trusting central banks), have persisted in serious cybersecurity inefficiencies.
A few years ago I had the privilege of talking to 30 of the top cybersecurity experts in the world as we put together MIT’s cybersecurity book. The blockchain world, as it turns out, isn’t notably better than anybody else at cyber-protection – and in some cases is worse.
2020 saw possibly $200 million or more stolen from various exchanges, and perhaps more unreported hacks occurred as well. I am hopeful 2020 will see better cyber-hygiene and cyber-practices. You will be hearing more from me on this topic in the months ahead.
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In 2008, an author using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto wrote a white paper describing Bitcoin, a new decentralized cryptocurrency. 8 Unlike past attempts at forming a cryptocurrency—attempts that relied on preestablished trusted entities for the system to operate correctly—Bitcoin’s design runs on the open Internet, with no one in charge, while maintaining tight security. While the building blocks of Bitcoin were not novel, the composition of these properties into a single system was a meaningful contribution, 9 and Bitcoin became the first cryptocurrency to achieve widespread attention.
In response to Bitcoin’s success, the technology was quickly dissected to understand how it works and what is new about it. Its most innovative component has been labeled blockchain technology, a decentralized mechanism for participants to agree upon data and computation.
Technology news commonly leaves the cheery impression that blockchain technology reduces or even completely eliminates the need for trust. The use cases of such an innovation stretch the imagination. Occasionally, there is a contrarian take. 12
The truth is, trust is complicated. Blockchain technology does eliminate specific, narrow reliances on trust, but it also requires new assumptions that might be better or worse for specific use cases. Thus, there are not many single-sentence talking points that will be accurate about blockchain technology’s efficiency, security, cost, and so on.
It is clear this technology requires a more nuanced discussion. Business executives, government leaders, investors, and researchers frequently ask the following three questions: What exactly is blockchain technology? What capabilities does it provide? What are good applications?
The goal of this article is to answer these questions thoroughly, provide a holistic overview of blockchain technology that separates hype from reality, and propose a useful lexicon for discussing the specifics of blockchain technology in the future.
Methodology. This discussion is based on a rigorous textual analysis of nonacademic sources (hereafter referred to as industry white papers), including but not limited to the technology, financial, and health care sectors—from startups to SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) to Fortune 500 corporations. Academics have already systematized deep technical aspects of blockchain technology. Our analysis systematizes a distinct set of knowledge—the institutional knowledge in industry—which helps complete the picture. What industry might lack in technical knowledge, it makes up for in understanding market needs, the true costs of deployment, the intricacies of existing and legacy systems, stakeholders and their competing interests, and the regulatory landscape.
While there is valuable information to be learned from industry, analyzing these sources also brings challenges, including imprecise terminology and errors in knowledge; inclusion of hype; and researcher bias.
The well-established research method known as grounded theory 3,15 was used to rigorously analyze the data in a way that directly addresses each of these three limitations. Grounded theory helps researchers identify highlevel themes and processes within qualitative data sources generated by humans and filled with imprecise terminology and descriptions. Additionally, grounded theory limits the impact of researcher bias, ensuring the themes and processes are derived from the data and not from the researchers’ preconceived notions of what the data says.
Materials. The following methods were used to gather materials:
- Following RSS feeds that track news and publications related to block-chain technology.
- Downloading materials published by blockchain consortia (for example, Hyperledger, the Decentralized Identity Foundation).
- Reviewing documents from major accounting firms, banks, and tech companies.
- Browsing news articles and blog posts related to blockchain technology.
- Reviewing submissions to the ONC (Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology) for the Blockchain in Health Care Challenge.
In reviewing these materials, we also followed references and included those documents if relevant. In total, 132 documents were collected and split into three categories:
- High-level overviews. Often prepared by investment firms, these overviews of blockchain technology provided an enumeration of efforts at using blockchain technology in practice.
- System designs. These papers proposed ways blockchain technology could be used in a specific system (or, less frequently, reported on a pilot study).
- Commentaries. These generally shorter documents discussed specific facets of blockchain technology in greater depth than seen in other documents.
Analysis. Four members of our group participated in the analysis of collected documents. We continued gathering and reviewing documents until each felt that the last three to five documents read revealed no new information; this is a commonly accepted stopping criterion in grounded theory that ensures all core (not one-off) ideas have been identified. A technical companion to this article contains the complete mythological details: the type of coding used at each stage and theory generation. 11
Results. The analysis revealed a set of 75 interconnected concepts that define blockchain technology. These concepts are grouped into five broad categories:
- Technical properties—the components that make up blockchain technology. Examples include decentralized governance, a consensus protocol, and an append-only transaction ledger.
- Capabilities—the high-level features provided by the technical properties. Examples include automatic executions of code (such as, smart contracts), internal auditability, and access control.
- Technical primitives—the building blocks used to construct the technical properties and capabilities of block-chain technology. Examples include timestamps, hash chains, and peer-to-peer communication.
- Use cases—classes of systems that the literature identified as applications of blockchain technology. Examples include cryptocurrencies, supply-chain management, and identity management.
- Normative properties—representative of what people hope to achieve using blockchain technology. Importantly, these properties are not provided by the use of blockchain technology, as the technical properties and capabilities are. In general, normative properties relate strongly to the hype surrounding blockchain technology. Examples include public participation, trustlessness, and censorship resistance.
While the concepts defining block-chain technology are divided into these five categories, individual concepts are highly interconnected, both inter- and intra-category. This lends credence to the notion that blockchain technology is a cohesive whole, with each of its component concepts serving a purpose in the overall technology. This article focuses on some interesting and useful highlights from the full analysis, while interested readers are directed to the technical companion article and data files for the rest. 11
The first broad category of blockchain technology concepts is technical properties, subdivided into three key groups: shared governance and operation, verifiable state, and resilience to data loss. Figure 1 shows the relationships among them.
Figure 1. Technical properties for blockchain technology.
Shared governance and operation. Blockchain technology addresses the scenario in which a collection of entities (for example, individuals or companies) want to participate in a communal system but do not trust each other or any third party to operate the system single-handedly. By deciding on the system details (governance) and then deploying networked devices (referred to as miners) to run the system, each entity can be assured of correct operation. If a small number of the miners become compromised (within bounds that are highly nuanced), the uncompromised miners can reject the malicious actions taken by the compromised miners and preserve the correct operation of the system. In this regard, blockchain technology provides diffused trust, in which the collective of miners is trusted. This is often given the misnomer trustlessness—trust still exists but has been diffused.
Shared operation is enabled by consensus protocols, which are used by the miners to agree upon which operations—known as transactions—will be executed by the system. A transaction is sometimes what it sounds like, a financial transaction that moves a unit of value from one account to another, but more generally it is a request that a certain function (which itself may be stored in the blockchain system) be executed on a set of inputs given in the transaction. Shared governance exists over what valid transactions look like (for example, the transaction is digitally signed by the sender) and how the system functions (for example, the size and number of operations in a transaction are less than a certain bound). Shared operation means every miner validates transactions, and consensus among miners is used to ensure only correct outputs of valid transactions are written to the blockchain system (invalid or incorrectly executed transactions can be proposed but will be rejected by the miners).
Blockchain systems can be categorized based on who is allowed to act as a miner:
- Open governance (that is, permissionless blockchain systems). Any party that is willing to participate in the consensus protocol is allowed to do so, regardless of their identity. To prevent a Sybil attack, in which an attacker creates multiple identities in order to influence the results of the consensus protocol, open governance system rely on consensus protocols where miners prove ownership and/or expenditure of some costly, finite resource. Proof of work (demonstrating ownership of computing resources) and proof of stake (staking digital assets owned on the blockchain system) are two common methods. 2,5
- Consortium governance (that is, permissioned blockchain systems). Participation in the consensus protocol is limited to miners approved on a whitelist defined at system initialization. If this set never changes, it is known as a static consortium. Alternatively, in an agile consortium miners change over time, either based on the rules of the system (for example, random selection) or through consensus by the existing miners. Because each miner in a consortium is mapped to a known identity, a traditional byzantine fault-tolerant protocol (from distributed systems) can be used. This sidesteps the wasteful resource expenditure of Sybil-resistant protocols such as proof of work. 2,5
For each type of governance, there is a need to reward correct participant behavior. The first type of incentive is intrinsic—such as, miners maintain the system faithfully because they derive value from using it. Next, on-chain incentives exist when the blockchain system provides direct benefits to miners for faithful execution (for example, minting currency and giving it to the miners). Finally, off-chain incentives are those not managed by the block-chain system—for example, contractual obligations or individual reputation. Importantly, off-chain incentives apply only to consortium governance, as they inherently rely on knowing the identity of the miners.
Verifiable state. Entities adopt blockchain technology because they want their trust to be rooted in the system (that the current state of the system accurately reflects the transactions that the consensus protocol allowed to execute in the past). To enable this trust, miners write all transactions to a cryptographically verified append-only ledger, 14 providing full system provenance and allowing miners (or outside parties) to audit the system’s current state and past operations.
In many systems, including Bitcoin, this ledger is colloquially referred to as the blockchain (we avoid using this term for the ledger to avoid confusion with holistic references to blockchain technology). In the ledger, all transactions are strictly ordered, and after consensus is reached (and as long as it is maintained) this ordering never changes and transactions are never removed. Thus, all miners who begin at the first entry (called the genesis block) will process all the transactions in the same order and reach the same current state for the entire system.
Resilience to data loss. If the ledger were stored in a single location, deletion or modification of data could be detected by all parties, but there would be no guarantee that the data could be restored. With blockchain technology, the content of the ledger is replicated among all miners to address this single point of failure. When data does need to be restored—for example, if an individual miner’s ledger is corrupted or a new miner joins—the replicated data can be verified to ensure it correctly represents the system state.
Some blockchain systems try to limit the amount of data any given miner needs to replicate by segmenting the data and assigning miners to handle governance and operations for only a subset of the system. This is known as sharding, with individual segments of the data called shards. Sharding can drastically reduce the amount of data that miners need to store, while also increasing the performance of the consensus protocol, which often scales based on the number of miners. Still, sharding adds complexity to auditing the system as a whole. Additionally, by reducing the number of miners responsible for any given transaction, sharding reduces the number of miners an adversary would need in order to deceive an end client about a transaction’s existence.
Capabilities define the high-level functionality that can be achieved by using blockchain technology in a system’s design. Blockchain technology’s three core capabilities were described in the preceding section: Shared governance and operation; verifiable state, and, resilience to data loss. In coding, we identified 11 additional capabilities. (In Figure 2 these capabilities are color coded: purple represents capabilities; blue, technical properties; and green, technical primitives. Arrows indicate that the destination depends on the source.)
Figure 2. Capabilities for blockchain technology.
Provenance and auditability. Block-chain systems provide a complete history of all transactions that were approved by the consensus process (that is, full-system provenance). This information can be used by the miners to audit the system and ensure it has always followed the appropriate rules. Additionally, this information can be used by nonminers to verify that the system is being governed and operated correctly.
If transactions are used to store information regarding digital or real-world resources, then the resources must be stapled to on-chain identifiers. The provenance information for the blockchain system can also be used to provide audit information for those resources. This can be used to track physical off-chain assets (for example, for supply-chain management), digital off-chain assets (for example, copyrighted digital media), or digital on-chain assets (cryptocurrencies or data files).
Access control and pseudonymity. Data stored in a blockchain system may have limitations on which users can use it as an input to a transaction or modify it as part of the transaction. For example, a financial asset should be a valid input to a transaction only if the owner of that asset approves its use. One approach to providing this functionality is storing access control lists (ACLs) in the ledger and having the appropriate users prove their identity to the miners (for example, using Kerberos or OAuth 2.0) as part of the transaction validation process.
More commonly, access control in a blockchain system is implemented cryptographically: data is associated with a public key when it is created, and the ability to use or modify this data as part of a transaction is granted only to users who can prove knowledge of the corresponding private key (for example, by generating a signature that validates with the public key attached to the data). Ownership of the data can be expanded or transferred by associating it with a new public key.
Key-based (as opposed to ACL-based) ownership of data has another advantage: It allows for pseudonymous ownership and use of data. Still, this requires careful attention in the system design to use appropriate cryptographic techniques (for example, zero-knowledge proofs, mix networks, or secure multiparty computation) to avoid linking real-world individuals to their keys and actions. This remains an open problem.
Smart contracts. In a general-purpose blockchain system, a smart contract or decentralized application (DApp) can be deployed using a transaction that stores the code for a set of functions and the initial state of the contract. These functions can then be called in subsequent transactions. The functions themselves are executed by the miners, and outputs are verified through the consensus protocol. Any entity can execute any function, but the function might be programmed to fail if the conditions under which it is called are not what the designer intended. The computational power of the scripting language that can be used to specify a function varies from system to system and there are many nuances to ensure functions can be executed by each miner deterministically in a timely fashion. Bitcoin is known for its limited scripting language that enables little beyond financial transactions, while Ethereum strives for highly verbose code capable of general computation.
Data discoverability. If users are allowed to read any record stored in a blockchain system, then it is possible to search for records of interest. This capability is nothing more than what is provided by having a read-only data lake, but it was still discussed frequently in the reviewed literature.
Challenges and Limitations
Our analysis reveals several challenges that need to be considered when developing systems that use block-chain technology.
Scalability and performance. Decentralized governance and operation incur three forms of overhead: The need to run a consensus protocol before state can be updated; the need to store the full system provenance; and, the need for each miner to store the ledger in its entirety. Furthermore, most of today’s open governance blockchain systems are based on proof of work, which brings additional challenges. Users must acquire hardware and expend electricity to participate in consensus, the real-world cost of which can be tremendous. For example, it was estimated that as of April 2020 the energy consumed by Bitcoin miners alone was equivalent to the power usage of almost 5.5 million U.S. households. 4
On-chain correctness. All executable code is subject to bugs, and smart contracts are no exception. The immutability of a blockchain’s ledger exacerbates this challenge by impeding rollback of state changes, even those that are clearly malicious. Failure to act can be costly (for example, the DAO attack 13 ), but so too can reversing transactions. If miners decide to roll back the ledger to erase a mistaken transaction, confidence in the blockchain system may be lost. The rollback system must be designed carefully, or there is risk of further exploitation. 1 Alternatively, if miners can’t agree on what to do about errant transactions, it could lead to a fork: the creation of two competing blockchain system.
Trust is complicated. Blockchain technology does eliminate specific, narrow reliances on trust, but it also requires new assumptions that might be better or worse for specific use cases.
Off-chain stapling. Many block-chain systems manage off-chain assets by representing them on-chain using digital identifiers, or tokens. A major challenge for these applications is ensuring consistency between on-chain state and the off-chain reality it represents. When dealing with digital assets, consistency can be maintained by code; for example, a smart contract can track transference of ownership for a digital media license. For physical assets, real-world processes must be employed to ensure consistency. These processes are an obvious point of failure, as they rely on correct execution by trusted parties (something that blockchain systems are often deployed to remove). The end users must also be trusted, as they may be able to separate a token and sell it while keeping the asset, causing the token to be attached to an invalid asset (for example, fake goods in luxury markets).
Similar challenges arise when block-chain systems must track real-world events and information (for example, sports scores, Web requests). While such information can be provided by off-chain oracles, these are trusted entities that are difficult to audit.
Security. Because of their decentralized nature, blockchain systems are potentially vulnerable to a number of security threats. Coordinated attacks by a majority (or, often, even a large minority) of the miners can reorder, remove, and change transactions on the ledger. Additionally, blockchain systems are vulnerable to traditional network attacks such as denial of service or partitioning. Such attacks aim to lower the number of participating miners or fracture the network of miners to prevent consensus, lower the bar for attacks, or create an inconsistent state.
Privacy and anonymity. Data in a blockchain ledger is public (at least to all miners) in order to enable verification, meaning that sensitive data is inherently nonprivate. Confidentiality can be provided using a reference monitor that limits access (for nonminers) to data stored in a blockchain system based on access-control lists stored in the ledger, but this introduces a trusted entity (the reference monitor). Alternatively, the data can be encrypted using advanced cryptographic techniques that allow miners to verify the correctness of encrypted transactions (for example, zero-knowledge proofs, secure multiparty computation, and functional encryption), 7 though encrypting data limits auditability and the ability to have meaningful shared governance.
Extreme care must be taken when trying to build an anonymous block-chain system. While many existing blockchain systems provide a notion of pseudonymity in which users are identified by their cryptographic keys instead of by their real-world names, this does not provide true anonymity, as attacks that correlate transactions by the same pseudonyms together with other data external to the blockchain system can effectively deanonymize users. 6
Usability. The availability of user-friendly developer tools varies significantly depending on the maturity of the blockchain platform. Some projects such as Ethereum have mature tools, while others have very little support. Many blockchain platforms are geared toward expert users and lack the experience-focused tools needed for easier use by nonexperts. A related challenge is that some blockchain systems require users to store, manage, and secure cryptographic keys; this requirement is known to be a significant impediment for most users. 10
Legality and regulation. Some benefits claimed by blockchain systems cannot be attributed to the underlying technology, but rather to sidestepping the regulation and oversight that slows existing systems (for example, international payments or raising capital by selling virtual assets to investors). As regulators catch up, compliance is given priority. Blockchain technology is not directly regulated; firms are regulated based on how they use it. The most discussed areas of regulation are taxation, audited financial statements, transaction reporting (know-your-customer/anti-money laundering/anti-terrorist financing), securities law, banking, and custodianship. An extreme case of regulation is prohibition of cryptocurrencies or blockchain assets. At the time of writing, the largest country to ban Bitcoin is Pakistan, and the largest country to prohibit wide categories of cryptocurrency use is China.
Industry and government can apply blockchain technology in a number of use cases that require shared governance, verifiable state, and/or resilience to data loss.
Financial use cases. It is well known that blockchain technology can be used to build cryptocurrencies; Bitcoin is a working example of this. Block-chain technology enables electronic transactions that are resilient even when large amounts of money are at stake. Bitcoin has notable drawbacks that include low scalability, high-energy consumption, and merely moderate privacy protections. A payment system using consortium governance can address the first two key challenges.
Asset trading. Financial markets allow the exchange of assets. They tend to involve intermediaries such as exchanges, brokers and dealers, depositories and custodians, and clearing and settlement entities. Blockchain-based assets—which are either intrinsically valuable or are claims on off-chain assets (material or digital)—can be transacted directly between participants, governed by smart contracts that can provide custodianship, and require less financial market infrastructure. Two key challenges are: Stapling for tokens that represent something off-chain (for example, equity in a firm or a debt instrument); and government oversight and regulatory compliance.
Markets and auctions. A central component of asset trading is the market itself—the coordination point for buyers and sellers to find each other, exchange assets, and provide price information to observers. Auctions are a common mechanism for setting a fair price; this includes double-sided auctions such as the order books in common use by financial exchanges. The key challenge for a decentralized market is that transactions are broadcast to the consensus protocol and thus nonconfidential, hindering privacy and enabling front-running.
Insurance and futures. Transactions can be arranged that are contingent on future times or events. Examples include a purchase of assets at a future time for a locked-in price, an insurance payout for a fire, or action on a loan default. The key challenges are: Determining trustworthy oracles to report relevant off-chain events such as fires and exchange rates. (or limiting the contracts to on-chain events); and choosing between a design that locks up so much collateral it can settle all possible eventualities, or a leaner design where the counterparty promises to fulfill its obligations but there is the counterparty risk that it will not.
Penalties, remedies, and sanctions. Legal contracts anticipate potential future breaches and specify a set of penalties or remedies. With blockchain technology, remedies for likely outcomes could be programmed (these could be later overturned through traditional litigation). As with insurance and futures, oracles and counterparty risk are key challenges.
Data storage and sharing use cases. Blockchain technology can be used to track material assets that are globally distributed and valuable, and whose provenance is of interest. This includes standalone items such as artwork and diamonds, certified goods such as food and luxury items, dispersed items such as fleets of vehicles, and packages being shipped over long distances, which will change hands many times in the process. It also includes the individual components of complex assembled devices, where the parts originate from different firms. For heavily regulated industries such as airlines, and for military/intelligence applications, it is important to establish the source of each part that has been used, as well as a maintenance history (that is, its provenance). Blockchain technology provides a common environment where no single firm has the elevated power and control of running the database that tracks this information. Key challenges are the reliable stapling of data, confidentiality, and onboarding all the necessary firms onto the same blockchain system.
Identity and key management. Identities, along with cryptographic attestations about properties for those identities (for example, over 18 years of age, has a driver’s license, owns a specific cryptographic key), can be maintained on a blockchain system. This is a special case of asset tracking, where the “asset” is a person. The key challenges are the same.
Tamper-resistant record storage. The append-only ledger of a block-chain system can be used to store documents, including the history of changes to these documents. This use case is best suited for records that are highly valuable (such as certificates and government licenses), have a small data size, and are publicly available (as they will be replicated by all miners). If large and/or confidential documents need to be stored, a blockchain system might store secure pointers (that is, binding/hiding commitments) for the documents, while the documents themselves are stored in a different system.
Other use cases. Electronic voting is a challenging problem that is often asserted to benefit from block-chain technology’s properties. Shared governance could be used to ensure multiple parties (the government, nongovernmental organizations, international watchdogs) can work together to ensure an election is legitimate. Auditability is important in providing evidence to the electorate that the election was fair. Finally, the resilience of blockchain technology is important in preventing cyberattacks against the voting system. Voting on a blockchain system, however, has many challenges to solve: Blockchain systems offer no inherent support for secret ballots; electronic votes can be changed by the device from which they are submitted (undetectably if a secret ballot is achieved); cryptographic keys could be sold to vote buyers; and key recovery mechanisms would need to be established for lost keys.
Gambling and games. Gambling is already very popular on Bitcoin and Ethereum. Players can audit the contract code to ensure execution is fair, and the contract can use cryptocurrency to handle the finances (including holding the money in escrow to prevent losing parties from aborting before paying). This use case is best suited for gambling games that do not require randomness, private state, or knowledge of off-chain events.
Ultimately, blockchain technology is not a panacea, but it is a useful tool when the overhead is justified by the system’s needs. A good place to start is by posing the following questions:
- Does the system require shared governance?
- Does the system require shared operation?
If both answers to these questions are no, the overhead of blockchain technology is unnecessary. If both answers are yes, there is a good fit. If only one of the answers is yes—if only shared governance or shared operation is needed but not both—then two more questions should be considered:
- Is it necessary to audit the system’s provenance?
- Is it necessary to prevent malicious data deletion?
If auditability and data replication are critical, blockchain technology should be considered. This is because meaningful shared governance and operation require miners to audit the operations of others and to be able to recover data that a malicious miner might try to delete.
Even though blockchain technology does not solve all the problems that its proponents claim it does, it is nonetheless a meaningful technology that will continue to be used in industry and is deserving of further research and experimentation.
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7. Kosba, A.E., Miller, A., Shi, E., Wen, A., Papamanthou, C. Hawk: The blockchain model of cryptography and privacy-preserving smart contracts. In Proceedings of IEEE Symp. Security and Privacy, 2020, 839–858; https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/7546538.
8. Nakamoto, S. Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer electronic cash system, 2008; https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf.
9. Narayanan, A., and Jeremy Clark, J. Bitcoin’s academic pedigree. acmqueue 15, 4 (2020); https://queue.acm.org/detail.cfm?id=3136559.
10. Ruoti, S. et al. A usability study of four secure email tools using paired participants. ACM Trans. Privacy and Security 22, 2 (2020), 13:1–13:33; https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=3313761&preflayout=tabs.
11. Ruoti, S., Kaiser, B., Yerukhimovich, A., Clark, J., Cunningham, R. SoK: Blockchain technology and its potential use cases. Technical report, 2020; https://arxiv.org/abs/1909.12454
14. Tamassia, R. Authenticated data structures. In Proceedings of European Symposium on Algorithms, 2003, 2–5. Springer; https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-540-39658-1_2.
15. Wolfswinkel, J.F., Furtmueller, E., Wilderom, C.P.M. Using grounded theory as a method for rigorously reviewing literature. European J. Information Systems 22, 1 (2020), 45–55; https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/ejis.2020.51.
Scott Ruoti is an assistant professor in the electrical engineering and computer science department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His research includes using blockchain technology to build and secure noncryptocurrency systems, improving the security and accessibility of password managers and two-factor authentication, and helping software developers create secure software.
Ben Kaiser is a Ph.D. student in the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ. He previously worked on applied cryptography as a staff researcher at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and now focuses on issues surrounding disinformation and online speech.
Arkady Yerukhimovich is an assistant professor of computer science at George Washington University. Previously, he was a research staff member at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. His recent research is focused on developing cryptographic protocols for secure computation and database search.
Jeremy Clark is an associate professor at the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering in Montreal, Canada, where he holds the NSERC/RCGT/Catallaxy Industrial Research Chair in Blockchain Technologies. He collaborates regularly with government agencies and municipalities on voting and blockchain technologies.
Robert Cunningham is Associate Director for Cyber Assurance in the CERT division of the Software Engineering Institute, and an adjunct professor of cybersecurity at Carnegie Mellon University. Previously, he led a series of computer security groups at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. He regularly briefs the U.S. Government on technical matters related to computer security.
The majority of this work was completed while the authors (other than Jeremy Clark) were working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
Copyright held by authors/owners. Publication rights licensed to ACM.
Request permission to publish from [email protected]
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2020 ACM, Inc.
The Decade in Blockchain — 2020 to 2020 in Review
On January 3rd, 2009, in the wake of a global financial crisis that accelerated the growing chasm of inequality throughout world economies, a mysterious figure named Satoshi Nakamoto launched a virtual currency named Bitcoin that functioned atop what s/he called a ‘Proof of Work chain.’
In its ‘genesis block,’ Nakamoto permanently embedded a brief line of text into the data that signaled the inspiration behind the newfangled tech: “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.”
It was a rallying cry for a better way. What proceeded over the next decade has been a stratospheric rollercoaster ride for cryptocurrencies and digital assets, alongside the early phases of a total reworking of economic and human systems atop a philosophy of decentralization and democratization of access to value.
There have been inconceivable highs and corresponding lows in the ten plus years since Bitcoin’s genesis block, as development of blockchain technology and awareness of its potential marches ever forward. As this decade draws to a close, it’s an opportune moment to view ten years of blockchain development in retrospective. The technology has grown from a digital currency worth only pennies to an emerging pillar of global economic systems—and it’s still just getting started.
Some context before we begin: As 2009 saw its end, blockchain development was limited. In fact, the first transactions ever to take place on the Bitcoin network were undertaken in December of 2009. The BitcoinTalk Forum, an early hotbed for blockchain developers, went live in November. The blockchain ecosystem was limited to a handful of technologists and developers with only an inkling of the phenomenon that they had already set in motion…
February — The first ever cryptocurrency exchange, Bitcoin Market, is established. The first trade takes place a month later.
April — The first public bitcoin trade takes place: 1000BTC traded for $30 at an exchange rate of 0.03USD/1BTC
May — The first real-world bitcoin transaction is undertaken by Laszlo Hanyecz, who paid 10000BTC for two Papa John’s pizzas (Approximately $25 USD)
June — Bitcoin developer Gavin Andreson creates a faucet offering 5 free BTC to the public
July — First notable usage of the word “blockchain” appears on BitcoinTalk forum. Prior to this, it was referred to as ‘Proof-of-Work chain’
July — Bitcoin exchange named Magic The Gathering Online eXchange—also known as Mt. Gox—established
August —Bitcoin protocol bug leads to emergency hard fork
December — Satoshi Nakamoto ceases communication with the world
January — One-quarter of the eventual total of 21M bitcoins have been generated
February — Bitcoin reaches parity for the first time with USD
April — Bitcoin reaches parity with EUR and GBP
June — WikiLeaks begins accepting Bitcoin donations
June — Mt. Gox hacked, resulting in suspension of trading and a precipitous price drop for Bitcoin
August — First Bitcoin Improvement Proposal: BIP Purpose and Guidelines
October — Litecoin released
December — Bitcoin featured as a major plot element in an episode of ‘The Good Wife’ as 9.45 million viewers watch.
May — Bitcoin Magazine, founded by Mihai Alisie and Vitalik Buterin, publishes first issue
July — Government of Estonia begins incorporating blockchain into digital ID efforts
September — Bitcoin Foundation created
September — Coinbase raises over $600k in funding
October — BitPay reports having over 1,000 merchants accepting bitcoin under its payment processing service
November — First Bitcoin halving to 25 BTC per block
February — Reddit begins accepting bitcoins for Gold memberships
March — Cyprus government bailout levies bank accounts with over $100k. Flight to Bitcoin results in major price spike.
May —Total Bitcoin value surpasses 1 billion USD with 11M Bitcoin in circulation
May — The first cryptocurrency market rally and crash takes place. Prices rise from $13 to $220, and then drop to $70
June — First major cryptocurrency theft. 25,000 BTC is stolen from Bitcoin forum founder
July — Mastercoin becomes the first project to conduct an ICO
August — U.S. Federal Court issues opinion that Bitcoin is a currency or form of money
October — The FBI shuts down dark web marketplace Silk Road, confiscating approximately 26,000 bitcoins
October — The first Bitcoin ATM begins operating at Waves Coffee Shop in Vancouver
November — Bitmain announces the release of the S1 Miner
November — People’s Bank of China okays Bitcoin, trading volume in the country surges to the global lead
November — Bitcoin breaks US$1,000
November — US Senate holds first ever hearings on Bitcoin
December — The first commit to the Ethereum codebase takes place
December — Chinese authorities revert stance on Bitcoin, declare it is not a currency.
January — Vitalik Buterin announces Ethereum at the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami
February — HMRC in the UK classifies Bitcoin as private money
February — Major DDoS attack against three major exchanges: Mt. Gox, Bitstamp, and BTC-e
February — Mt. Gox goes offline, files for bankruptcy protection. Over 850,000 BTC are unaccounted.
March — IRS provides guidance that virtual currency will be treated as property for U.S. tax purposes
March — Credit-card processor Stripe begins accepting Bitcoin
March — Newsweek claims Dorian Nakamoto is Bitcoin creator. He is not
June — Ethereum Foundation established in Zug, Switzerland
June — US Marshals Service auctions off 30,000 Bitcoin confiscated from Silk Road. All are purchased by venture capitalist Tim Draper
July — Ethereum token launch raises 31,591 BTC ($18,439,086) over 42 days
July — BitUSD, the first stablecoin, launched by BitShares
September — TeraExchange launches first U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission approved Bitcoin over-the-counter swap
October — ConsenSys is founded by Joe Lubin
December — By year’s end, Paypal, Zynga, Overstock.com, Expedia, Newegg, Dell, Dish Network, and Microsoft are all accepting Bitcoin for payments
January — Coinbase opens up the first U.S-based cryptocurrency exchange
February — Stripe initiates bitcoin payment integration for merchants
April — NASDAQ initiates blockchain trial
June — NYDFS releases final version of its BitLicense virtual currency regulations
July — Ethereum’s first live mainnet release—Frontier—launched.
August — Augur, the first token launch on the Ethereum network takes place
September — R3 consortium formed with nine financial institutions, increases to over 40 members within six months
October — Gemini exchange launches, founded by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss
October — Bitcoin featured on the front cover of The Economist
November — Announcement of first zero knowledge proof, ZK-Snarks
November — ERC-20 token standard is proposed
December — Linux Foundation establishes Hyperledger project
December — WIRED claims that Craig Wright is probably Satoshi Nakamoto
December — Pieter Wuille releases “Segregated witness and its impact on scalability” (SegWit)
January — Joseph Poon and Thaddeus Dryja release “ The Bitcoin Lightning Network: Scalable On-Chain Instant Payments ”
January — Zcash announced
February — HyperLedger project announced by Linux Foundation with thirty founding members
March — Blockchain and cryptocurrency feature heavily in the Chinese government’s 5-year plan
March — Second Ethereum mainnet release, Homestead, is rolled out.
April — The DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) launches a 28-day crowdsale. After one month, it raises an Ether value of more than US$150M
May — Chinese Financial Blockchain Shenzhen Consortium launches with 31 members
June — The DAO is attacked with 3.6M of the 11.5M Ether in The DAO redirected to the attacker’s Ethereum account
July — The DAO attack results in a hard fork of the Ethereum Blockchain to recover funds. A minority group rejecting the hard fork continues to use the original blockchain renamed Ethereum Classic
July — Second Bitcoin halving to 12.5BTC per block mined
November — CME Launches Bitcoin Price Index
January — Bitcoin price breaks US$1,000 for the first time in three years
February — Enterprise Ethereum Alliance formed with 30 founding members, over 150 members six months later
March — Multiple applications for Bitcoin ETFs rejected by the SEC
April — Bitcoin is officially recognized as currency by Japan
June — EOS begins its year-long ICO, eventually raising $4 billion
July — Parity hack exposes weaknesses in multisig wallets
August — Bitcoin Cash forks from the Bitcoin Network
October — Ethereum releases Byzantium soft fork network upgrade, part one of Metropolis
September — China bans ICOs
September — Amount locked in decentralized finance apps reaches $1 million
October — Bitcoin price surpasses $5,000 USD for the first time
October — CME announces Bitcoin futures
November — Bitcoin price surpasses $10,000 USD for the first time
November — Segwit2X is cancelled after a groundswell of concern from the Bitcoin community
November — Devcon3 in Cancun raises capacity twice to accommodate developer demand
December — CBOE Bitcoin futures are launched
December — Bitcoin price touches $20,000 USD
December — Lightning Network Protocol 1.0 released
December — Ethereum Dapp Cryptokitties goes viral, pushing the Ethereum network to its limits
December — MakerDAO launches DAI, signaling a future for decentralized finance
December — Long Island Iced Tea Corp. renames itself Long Blockchain Corp in a publicity stunt. Its stock price rises more than 200% at trading open
December — Median transaction fee for the Bitcoin network reaches a peak of $34 USD
December — Austrian government founds the Research Institute for Cryptoeconomy
December — 2020 sees 435 successful ICOs raising a cumulative total of over $5.6 billion USD
January — Switzerland begins accepting tax payments in Bitcoin
January — 80% of all Bitcoin has been mined
January — Ethereum price peaks near $1400 USD
January — Total cryptocurrency market cap peaks at over $800 billion
January — Facebook bans all ads pertaining to cryptocurrency
March — Google bans all ads pertaining to cryptocurrency
March — Twitter bans all ads pertaining to cryptocurrency
April — 2020 outpaces 2020 with $6.3 billion raised in token launches in the first four months of the year
April — EU government commits $300 million to developing blockchain projects
April — Over 1,500 cryptocurrencies with a total market cap of $43 million
June — The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission states that Ether is not a security.
June — South Korean government invests millions into blockchain development initiatives
July — Over 100,000 ERC20 tokens created
August — New York Stock Exchange owner announces Bakkt, a federally regulated digital asset exchange
August — Monetary Authority of Singapore launches Project Ubin, proving interbank settlement use cases for Ethereum
October — Fidelity launches institutional platform for cryptocurrencies
October — Bitcoin’s 10th birthday
November — VC investment in blockchain tech surpasses $1 billion
November — Bitcoin Cash hard forks into Bitcoin ABC and Bitcoin SV
December — 90% of banks in the US and Europe report exploration of blockchain tech
December — Kaspersky report claims that 19% of the global population purchased cryptocurrency prior to 2020
December — Over $2o billion USD raised in token launches throughout the year
January — Coinstar machines begin selling cryptocurrency at grocery stores across the US
February — Ethereum’s Constantinople hard fork is released, part two of Metropolis
April — Bitcoin surpasses 400 million total transactions
June — Daily Ethereum transactions surpass one million
June — Facebook announces Libra
July — United States senate holds hearings titled ‘ Examining Regulatory Frameworks for Digital Currencies and Blockchain”
August — Ethereum developer dominance reaches 4x that of any other blockchain
October — Block.One fined $24 million by the SEC for its unregulated $4 billion EOS ICO
October — Over 80 million distinct Ethereum addresses have been created
September — Santander bank settles both sides of a $20 million bond on Ethereum
November — Over 3000 Dapps created. Of them, 2700 are built on Ethereum
November — Amount of Ether locked in Decentralized Finance apps reaches all time high of 2.7 million ETH.
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