Do you need a blockchain? (Probably not!)

Blockchains are the latest technology to enter the mainstream.  A blockchain powers and makes BitCoin possible. Many are treating blockchains as the next big breakthrough in technology. There is even a Blockchain Caucus in Congress.

Do not get your hopes up or bet your retirement savings on blockchains, they are definitely not the next Internet or Hula Hoop.  Most importantly they will not transform elections or solve the challenges of online voting.

From IEEE Do You Need a Blockchain? <read>

Blockchain technology is, in essence, a novel way to manage data. As such, it competes with the data-management systems we already have. Relational databases…suffer from one major constraint: They put the task of storing and updating entries in the hands of one or a few entities, whom you have to trust won’t mess with the data or get hacked.

Blockchains, as an alternative, improve upon this architecture in one specific way—by removing the need for a trusted authority. With public blockchains…, a group of anonymous strangers (and their computers) can work together to store, curate, and secure a perpetually growing set of data without anyone having to trust anyone else. Because blockchains are replicated across a peer-to-peer network, the information they contain is very difficult to corrupt or extinguish.

This feature alone is enough to justify using a blockchain if the intended service is the kind that attracts censors…

However, removing the need for trust comes with limitations. Public blockchains are slower and less private than traditional databases, precisely because they have to coordinate the resources of multiple unaffiliated participants. To import data onto them, users often pay transaction fees in amounts that are constantly changing and therefore difficult to predict. And the long-term status of the software is unpredictable as well. Just as no one person or company manages the data on a public blockchain, no one entity updates the software. Rather, a whole community of developers contributes to the open-source code in a process that, in Bitcoin at least, lacks formal governance…

“If you don’t mind putting someone in charge of a database…then there’s no point using a blockchain, because [the blockchain] is just a more inefficient version of what you would otherwise do,” says Gideon Greenspan, the CEO of Coin Sciences, a company that builds technologies on top of both public and permissioned blockchains.

With this one rule, you can mow down quite a few blockchain fantasies. Online voting, for example, has inspired many well-intentioned blockchain developers, but it probably does not stand to gain much from the technology.

“I find myself debunking a blockchain voting effort about every few weeks,” says Josh Benaloh, the senior cryptographer at Microsoft Research. “It feels like a very good fit for voting, until you dig a couple millimeters below the surface.”

Benaloh points out that tallying votes on a blockchain doesn’t obviate the need for a central authority. Election officials will still take the role of creating ballots and authenticating voters. And if you trust them to do that, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t also record votes.

In my early days of advocacy, my congressman at a forum claimed that there would be no problems with electronic voting because of a magic new technology, “encryption”. It has not worked out that way.  Like encryption, blockchains cannot protect against corruption of the computer itself – a laptop or smartphone used for online voting, an optical scanner or touch-screen voting machine, or the central server collecting and reporting results.


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