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Is 'utopian' blockchain tech doomed to fail?

Who is actually using blockchain?

Aside from Bitcoin, where blockchain technology is used to write coin transfer into the database, the largest blockchain is Google's Certificate Transparency initiative, which shares data on SSL/TLS certificates between Certificate Authorities (CAs). It arrived in the wake of DigiNotar hackers issuing fake SSL certificates for Google and Facebook back in 2011.

Google dominates search, and will want to dominate digital identity, too

Google dominates search, and will want to dominate digital identity, too

"(Using blockchain) allows detection of fake certificates by anybody, automatically, in a matter of minutes," says Hrycyszyn. "It limits the damage that can be done, and makes the internet fundamentally more secure … it's doing a valuable job that'd be difficult to do in any other way."

Can the tech be abused?

Absolutely. Just as the current internet supports fun video sharing and cybercrime, blockchains can be used for radically different purposes. Some fear a digital currency built on blockchain could create a society where governments would find it surprisingly easy to spy on – and even control – people's spending habits.

But there's a flipside. "By mandating the use of blockchain databases in high-value financial transactions, it would be possible for governments to crack open the murky world of offshore finance, allowing better auditing and more transparency," says Hrycyszyn. "Especially in the wake of the Panama Papers, this is something that many people might happily support."

Blockchain is the distributed ledger technology behind the Bitcoin cryptocurrency

Blockchain is the distributed ledger technology behind the Bitcoin cryptocurrency

'Skeleton key' dilemma

However, whether blockchain is used as an open source decentralising technology or in walled gardens isn't the issue for the financial industry.

"Blockchain will create some fascinating dilemmas for the sector – its strength is that it is a perfect, un-hackable and unchangeable record – but how then will courts and regulators enforce their decisions when this by definition means changing the record?" asks Mark Nuttall, Partner, Capital Markets Practice, Linklaters. "And if there is a 'skeleton key' to the system held by a regulator or institution, then the heart of blockchain, with its promise of no single point of failure, has been lost.

Could it ever create a 100% secure internet?

There's that hype again. "100% security is a nirvana state that is unlikely to ever be achieved while humans are in the process somewhere," says Stevens, who nevertheless thinks that certain parts of the technology stack will get close to that 100% target. "But even if we look out far enough with the evolution of blockchain, bots and artificial intelligence, the possibility of cutting humans out of the loop completely, and fully automating a process, will still leave 'something' being controlled or accessed by humans."

Even AI will be controlled by humans, and therefore be corruptible

Even AI will be controlled by humans, and therefore be corruptible

Wider understanding

Blockchain is a potentially powerful technology in its infancy, but it's a relative unknown for most people in IT. "It's going to change the world in ways which we don't yet fully understand, but it won't achieve its full impact until most programmers can understand and use it in their everyday work," says Hrycyszyn.

Utopian phase

It's time to stop thinking about blockchain as a cure-all, and start actually using it. "Just as I wouldn't trade the internet for anything, I wouldn't give up on blockchains just yet," says Stevens, who admits that the technology is now moving out of its utopian phase.

"There is a lot of potential to make good things using this technology," says Hrycyszyn. "I'm interested in making it available to more people … and seeing what human creativity can unleash."