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Blockchain Technology in Online Voting

Blockchain Technology
  • Telegraph.co.uk

    “Bitcoin is giving banks a run for their money. Now the same technology threatens to eradicate social networks, stock markets, even national governments.”

    – Matthew Sparkes

  • TechCrunch.com

    “The “blockchain” — the engine on which Bitcoin is built — is a new kind of distributed consensus system that allows transactions, or other data, to be securely stored and verified without any centralized authority at all.”

    – Jon Evans

  • BBC.com

    “With blockchain technology, you could create a truly tamper-proof record system… records can go into the Blockchain in a way that I know if anybody tries to change it.”

    – Peter Kirby

  • Bloomberg.com

    “You should be taking this technology as seriously as you should have been taking the development of the Internet in the early 1990’s.” 

    – Blythe Masters

  • Forbes.com

    Both the financial services and Bitcoin communities perked up last week when Citi, Nasdaq, Visa and other large financial institutions invested in Chain.com, a Bitcoin blockchain services provider.”

    – Laura Shin

  • Telegraph.co.uk

    “Bitcoin is giving banks a run for their money. Now the same technology threatens to eradicate social networks, stock markets, even national governments.”

    – Matthew Sparkes

  • TechCrunch.com

    “The “blockchain” — the engine on which Bitcoin is built — is a new kind of distributed consensus system that allows transactions, or other data, to be securely stored and verified without any centralized authority at all.”

    – Jon Evans

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Definition of Blockchain

A blockchain is an audit trail for a database which is managed by a network of computers where no single computer is responsible for storing or maintaining the database, and any computer may enter or leave this network at any time without jeopardizing the integrity or availability of the database. Any computer can rebuild the database from scratch by downloading the blockchain and processing the audit trail.

Motivation for Blockchain Technology

Traditional databases are maintained by a single organization, and that organization has complete control of the database, including the ability to tamper with the stored data, to censor otherwise valid changes to the data, or to add data fraudulently. For most use cases, this is not a problem since the organization which maintains the database does so for its own benefit, and therefore has no motive to falsify the database’s contents; however, there are other use cases, such as a financial network, where the data being stored is too sensitive and the motive to manipulate it is too enticing to allow any single organization to have total control over the database. Even if it could be guaranteed that the responsible organization would never enact a fraudulent change to the database (an assumption which, for many people, is already too much to ask), there is still the possibility that a hacker could break in and manipulate the database to their own ends.

The most obvious way to ensure that no single entity can manipulate the database is to make the database public, and allow anyone to store a redundant copy of the database. In this way, everyone can be assured that their copy of the database is intact, simply by comparing it with everyone else’s. This is sufficient as long as the database is static; however, if changes must be made to the database after it has been distributed, a problem of consensus arises: which of the entities keeping a copy of the database decides which changes are allowed and what order those changes occurred in? If any of the entities can make changes at any time, the redundant copies of the database will quickly get out of sync, and there will be no consensus as to which copy is correct. If all of the entities agree on a certain one who makes changes first, and the others all copy from it, then that one has the power to censor changes it doesn’t like. Furthermore, if that one entity disappears, the database is stuck until all of the others can organize to choose a replacement. All of the entities may agree to take turns making changes and all the others copy changes from the one whose turn it is, but this opens the question of who decides who gets a turn when.

How Blockchain Technology Works

Blockchain technology solves these problems by creating a network of computers (called nodes) which each store a copy of the database, and a set of rules (called the consensus protocol) which define the order in which nodes may take turns adding new changes to the database. In this way, all of the nodes agree as to the state of the database at any time, and no one node has the power to falsify the data or to censor changes. The blockchain further requires that an audit trail of all changes to the database is preserved, which allows anyone to audit that the database is correct at any time. This audit trail is composed to the individual changes to the database, which are called transactions. A group of transactions which were all added by a single node on its turn is called a block. Each block contains a reference to the block which preceded it, which establishes an ordering of the blocks. This is the origin of the term “blockchain”: it is a chain of blocks, each one containing a link to the previous block and a list of new transactions since that previous block. When a new node joins the network, it starts with an empty database, and downloads all of the blocks, applying the transactions within them to the database, to fast-forward this database to the same state as all the other nodes have. In essence, a blockchain establishes the order in which transactions were applied to the database so that anyone can verify that the database is accurate by rebuilding it from scratch and verifying that at no point was any improper change made.

Blockchains in Action

The most obvious example of blockchain technology in use today is Bitcoin. Bitcoin is a digital currency system which uses a blockchain to keep track of ownership of the currency. Whenever someone wishes to spend their bitcoins, they create a transaction which states that they are sending a certain number of their bitcoins to someone else. Then they digitally sign this transaction to authorize it, and broadcast it to all of the nodes in the Bitcoin network. When the next node creates a block, it will check that the new transaction is valid, and include it in the new block, which is then propagated to all other nodes in the network, which adjust their databases to deduct the transferred bitcoins from the sender and credit them to the recipient.

Blockchain Consensus Protocols

As mentioned above, blockchains are governed by a set of rules called the consensus protocol. These rules define which changes are allowed to be made to the database, who may make them, when they can be made, etc. One of the most important aspects of the consensus protocol are the rules governing how and when blocks are added to the chain. This is important because in order for blockchains to be useful, they must establish an unchangeable timeline of events, which must be agreed upon by all nodes, so that all nodes can agree on the current state of the database. Moreover, this timeline cannot be subject to censorship, thus no single node may be entrusted with control over what enters it when. There are currently two main types of consensus protocol: Proof of Work (PoW) and Proof of Stake (PoS).

Proof of Work is the original consensus protocol, and is currently used by Bitcoin, Ethereum (as of January, 2016), and many other blockchains. Proof of Work is based on puzzles which are difficult to solve, but once solved, it’s easy to verify that the solution is correct. This is analogous to a jigsaw puzzle: hours of effort are required to put the puzzle together, but it takes only a momentary glance to see that one has been assembled correctly. In Proof of Work consensus, the effort required to solve a puzzle is called Work, and a solution is called a Proof of Work. In other words, the fact that I know the solution to the puzzle proves that someone did the work to find that solution. The solution is proof that someone did work. Blockchains which use Proof of Work consensus require such proof for each new block to be added to the chain, thus requiring Work to be done to create new blocks. This Work is frequently referred to as ‘mining.’ Proof of Work consensus protocols state that the chain containing the most blocks is the correct chain because it contains the most work. Blockchains which use Proof of Work are regarded as secure timelines because if one node attempted to rewrite history by changing an old block, its change would invalidate the work on the block it changed and all blocks after it by making the Proofs incorrect. In order to convince other nodes that the modified chain is the correct chain, that node would have to redo all of the work in all of the blocks after his change to make new, valid Proofs, and because all other nodes are still making new blocks with new Proofs and adding them to the original chain, the one node would have to redo all of the old work faster than all other nodes combined in order to catch up and surpass the original chain. This is known as a 51% attack, so named because the one node would have to have at least 51% of the computational power (ability to do Work and find Proofs) of all nodes combined. If this attack were successfully carried out, the attacking node would be able to censor transactions from the blockchain, change the order in which transactions occurred, or change transactions that node made (but the node would be unable to change any other node’s transactions).

Proof of Stake is a newer consensus protocol which was developed to address some perceived weaknesses in Proof of Work and is currently utilized by Peercoin, BitShares, and several other blockchains. Some of the advantages of Proof of Stake are that no Work is required, thus it requires less energy; the 51% attack is theoretically more expensive; and PoS may encourage a more decentralized network of nodes than PoW. Proof of Stake consensus protocols have more varied rules governing which nodes may create new blocks when than Proof of Work protocols, but in general all PoS protocols specify that block production is controlled by Stake in the blockchain rather than computational power. Stake in the blockchain is balances in the currency the blockchain tracks, thus the greater the balance a node owns, the more say that node has in block production. Proponents of Proof of Stake consensus protocols argue that owners of large amounts of stake will wish to protect their investment and thus will take action to ensure block production continues smoothly and securely. Attacks on the network will damage trust in the network, thereby devaluing the stake. A 51% attack would require the attacker to buy 51% of the stake in the network, which would be extremely expensive since the more stake the attacker buys, the higher the price will rise, and using that stake to attack the network will result in a complete loss since the value of the stake would be destroyed by the attack. This is as compared with a 51% attack on a Proof of Work blockchain, which requires only computing power which typically becomes cheaper when purchased in bulk, and can be repurposed or sold when the attack is complete. It is further supposed that, whereas Proof of Work consensus incentivizes greater centralization because computing power is cheaper with centralized cooling and power, no such incentive exists with Proof of Stake since a typical smartphone has more than sufficient computational power to produce blocks for a PoS blockchain.

Blockchain Technology and Online Voting

Another application for blockchain technology is voting. By casting votes as transactions, we can create a blockchain which keeps track of the tallies of the votes. This way, everyone can agree on the final count because they can count the votes themselves, and because of the blockchain audit trail, they can verify that no votes were changed or removed, and no illegitimate votes were added.

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Around the time when bitcoin and blockchains were starting to catch the attention of the mainstream investment world, a New York-based start​up called Digital Asset Holdings (DAH) was launched. Blythe Masters was at its helm. The Wall Street veteran is knowledgeable about a common problem many banks face: Getting incompatible financial databases to talk to each other. It’s costly, complex, and takes time. While it might seem that traders work at Red Bull speed in lightning-paced environments, the technology used to execute trades is remarkably old- Fashioned and slow.

Lots of phone calls are made, emails traded and even the occasional fax is still sent. It can take up to three days—T3—for stock trades to change hands via clearing houses such as the National Securities Clearing Corporation (NSCC). It’s a process known as ‘settlement lag.’ Every hour before settlement happens, when a trade precariously hangs between sale and purchase, increases the risk that the trade won’t go through. Obviously, it’s in the banks’ interest to close that lag time as much as possible.

From WHO CAN YOU TRUST? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart by Rachel Botsman. Published in November 2017 by PublicAffairs, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group

Blockchains could help reduce the gap of the entire lifecycle of a trade from days to minutes, even to zero. According to a report by Santander InnoVentures, the Spanish bank’s fintech investment fund, by 2022 ledger technologies could save banks $15–20 billion a year by reducing regulatory, settlement and cross-border costs.

Digital Asset Holdings wants to be the distributed database handling these speedy transactions. And the who’s who of the world’s biggest financial names, including Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Blythe Masters’s old employer, JP Morgan, have ploughed more than $60 million of investment into DAH. Speed and efficiency are not the only qualities that make distributed ledgers attractive to banks. ‘Regulators will like that blockchain-based transactions can achieve greater transparency and traceability– an “immutable audit trail”,’ Masters says. In other words, it could help eliminate the kinds of fraud that come from cooking the books. It’s rather ironic that these words come from a woman who spent several months being investigated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a cover‑​up of energy-trading strategies. Masters was not cited for any wrongdoing and no action was brought individually against her. JP Morgan paid $410 million to settle and close the case, without denying or admitting wrongdoing.

On Wall Street, the race is on to embrace or control what could be either its biggest ally or its death knell. Where does the average Joe store their money? In a bank’s current or savings account or a safety deposit. But the blockchain could become a new repository of value. How do typical loans work? A bank assesses the credit score of an individual or business and decides whether to lend money. The blockchain could become the source to check the creditworthiness of any potential borrower, thereby facilitating more and more peer‑​to‑​peer financing.

How do typical credit cards and money transfer services work? They currently flow through a bank, but the blockchain could handle this exchange of value directly from person to person.

Consider traditional accounting, a multi-billion industry largely dominated by the ‘big four’ audit firms, Deloitte, KPMG, Ernst & Young, and PwC. The digital distributed ledger could transparently report the financial transactions of an organization in real time, reducing the need for traditional accounting practices. And that is why most major players in the financial industry are busy investing significant resources into blockchain solutions. They have to embrace this new paradigm to ensure it works for, not against, them.

MORE OF THE TOP TECH BOOKS OF 2017

  • The Top Tech Books of 2017: Part I

  • The Top Tech Books of 2017: Part II

A San Francisco-based venture called Chain is said to have raised more than $30 million in funding from big names such as Nasdaq, Visa, and Citi Ventures to develop open-source code for a distributed ledger. IBM, Wells Fargo, the London Stock Exchange, and others have joined forces with Digital Asset Holdings to develop blockchain software that is also open source, making the underlying recipe available to developers. Originally dubbed the Open Ledger Project (and later renamed Hyperledger), the joint efforts are being overseen by the widely respected Linux Foundation.

Goldman Sachs has recently filed a patent for its own cryptocurrency, its own version of bitcoin, called SETLcoin which processes foreign-exchange transactions. It is designed to run on the bank’s own private blockchain. This means the replicated ledger of transactions still sits behind the closed walls of the bank, centralized and guarded. It seems to defeat the very purpose of the technology, which is to create a single indisputable version of the truth, freely accessible to all, that could eliminate the need for the bank entirely. In the patent, Goldman describes SETLcoin as having the potential to guarantee ”nearly instantaneous execution and settlement“ for trades. It would mean all the capital the bank is required to keep in reserve, to hedge against the risk of transactions if they don’t settle, would be freed up.

More than forty banks have a stake in a consortium called R3CEV to come up with shared standards for blockchains. The technology will be pretty much worthless if there are multiple versions of the blockchain that can’t work together. R3CEV wants to bring along all the banks and regulators so they can share just one—a ledger that is not controlled by any one person or organization but by many participants. Sure, it’s collaboration, but perhaps not the kind Satoshi had in mind.

Notably, R3CEV has recruited a man by the name of Mike Hearn as its chief platform officer. The former Googler is a big deal in the blockchain world. Hearn spent more than five years working full-time alongside Gavin Andresen, as part of Bitcoin Core, the original group of developers that maintain the open-source code that runs the bitcoin peer‑to‑peer network.

Hearn admits he is a ‘tell‑​it‑​like‑​I-see‑​it kinda guy’. In January 2016, he publicly denounced the future of bitcoin and said it was inherently doomed. ”It has failed because the community has failed. What was meant to be a new, decentralized form of money…has become something even worse: a system completely controlled by just a handful of people,“ Hearn wrote. ”The mechanisms that should have prevented this outcome have broken down, and as a result there’s no longer much reason to think bitcoin can actually be better than the existing financial system.“

Just days after he published the post, Hearn joined the R3CEV banking consortium. “The current Bitcoin system, I mean the system we actually use today with the blockchain, isn’t going to change the world at all due to the 1mb limit [the maximum size of a bitcoin block],” he said in defence of his move. “So if I have a choice between helping the existing financial system build something better than what they have today that resembles Bitcoin, or helping the Bitcoin community build something worse than what they have today that resembles banking, then I may as well go where the users are and work with the banks.”

From Buterin to Hearn, it seems that everyone, however different their motives, is in a race to create something like the original Satoshi blockchain, only better. For many, it’s the biggest game in town.

The blockchain raises a key human question: How much should we pay to trust one another? In the past year, I’ve paid my bank interest and fees, some hidden, to verify accounts and balances so that I could make payments to strangers. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on lawyers to draw up contracts because I am not quite sure how another person will behave (and to sort out a few incidents where trust broke down). I’ve paid my insurance company to oversee the risk around my health, car, home, and even life. I’ve paid an accountant to reconcile an auditing issue. I’ve paid an estate agent tens of thousands of dollars essentially to stand between me, the prospective buyer, and the current owner to buy a house. It would seem we pay a lot for people to lord over our lives and double-check what’s happening. All these ‘trusted intermediaries’ are part of the world of institutional trust that is now being deeply questioned.

Many of the ideas surrounding the blockchain sound ambitious, risky, and radical. Many are being over-hyped, overfunded and will likely fail. What’s not in doubt is that, as the cost of trust plummets because of new technology, the third parties currently paid to facilitate our trust—be they agents, referees, watchdogs or custodians—will increasingly have to prove their value if they don’t want to be supplanted by an ‘immutable’ ledger.

In 1993, enthusiasts such as Al Gore were telling the world about a coming ”information superhighway“ that would change the world. The internet was a novel concept few had grasped and people didn’t really know what to make of it. John Allen, an early web aficionado, went on TV to try to explain how people would use it: “In this world, there’s a table with a big sign on it that says ‘Football’ and there’s 150 or 1,000 jocks all around the world who want to talk about football,” he said on CBC. At that time, Mark Zuckerberg was nine years old. Google was three years from being born. All the other products and companies that would emerge to commercialize the internet and its future potential were not yet clear. Today, it is circa 1993 for blockchain technologies. Even though most people barely know what the blockchain is, a decade or so from now it will be like the internet: We’ll wonder how society ever functioned without it. The internet transformed how we share information and connect; the blockchain will transform how we exchange value and whom we trust.

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