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The Value of Trust in Technology (and a Bit about Blockchain)

By Charles Dull and Jeanette Evans | STC Associate Fellow

This column investigates emerging technologies in education and how we might use them in our work. Whether it is social media, wearable technologies, the latest in printers, personalization, big data, BYOD, cloud computing, mobile apps, MOOCs, analytics, digital identity, haptic interfaces, augmented reality, or the Internet of Things, we can all benefit from current thinking on these technologies. Contact the columnists at jeanette.evans@sbcglobal.net.

In personal relationships, trust is critical. You want to trust your friends, family, and spouse. A breakdown in trust is a breakdown in the relationship. Technology is built on a similar principle. You trust the email you are getting is from the person in the header. You trust the bank you log into is going to manage your accounts securely. You trust the purchase you just made was authentic.

Lately, there has been a trust breakdown in technology. Email spam, phishing, and hacks into secure transactions coupled with an inability to verify and authenticate identities have eroded consumer trust in technology. These challenges are so serious that some mobile phone service providers are using a process to identify potential spam calls. While trust is a noble trait for people, it is often co-opted in technology, and at times we do not even know that it’s happening.

As we ponder the trust paradox, it may be time to consider a trustless process that is tamper-evident. Enter the blockchain.

Blockchain technology was first developed as a method to enact cybercurrency transactions. Those who developed the technology hold a deep-seated belief in protecting personal privacy. While cybercurrencies were designed to work independently of any central bank in any county, the technology that is used for these transactions has benefits for the very central banking and retail entities they disrupt.

Blockchain is a trustless, tamper-evident process that uses math as the backbone for authenticating identities. Another advantage is that blockchain is a DDMS, or distributed database management system, because every block in the chain has all of the information for all of that transaction’s activity. You do not need to check with a bank, check a receipt, etc. It is all in the block.

Blockchain is a chain of records of transactions that have been mined and authenticated, not by trusted people or banks, but by solving complex math problems. Each block has all of the information for the transaction and has a connection to the previous block. In order to tamper with one block, you have to have a process to tamper with every block and solve every new math problem that would be created.

There are obvious benefits to eliminating hacked financial transactions, but blockchain can also protect other processes. Think for a moment about obtaining the title to a house or car, and all of the steps that you would need to take to authenticate the title and verify your identity. If property transfers were in a blockchain, all of this information would all be in a block.

This all sounds very simple for an extremely complicated process. The math alone used to enable blockchain access is very complex. The primary challenge facing blockchain currently is power consumption; it takes an incredible amount of electric power for a single blockchain transaction. However, the potential to reduce or eliminate hacking cannot be ignored.

Blockchain also solves the personal authentication challenge. Authentication, identification, and validation are terms often used to mean the same thing, yet they are all very different. Using a license to prove who you are is an identification process. Authentication is a process where something else must happen to validate the transaction. Many banks and other secure services, for example, have adopted two-factor authentication routines, so that when you log in, you are sent another code (usually to your phone or email) to enter to validate the process.

In blockchain, authentication happens to protect your personal identity and to protect the validity of the transaction. Blockchain requires users to establish public and private keys, and the process requires a mathematical routine. The keys are connected; the public key is used for transactions and is authenticated by the private key. The transaction never reveals the users’ identities, but through authentication, the users can transact or even communicate.

The most challenging aspect of blockchain is that it has variations, and trying to lock down one method that is the primary blockchain technology is just not possible. There are fundamentals, however, and as adoption increases, we will see standards develop.

The math is complex, but the value of a trustless system for technology is worth the change. There is much potential and many possibilities for the use of blockchain technology; technical communicators could even use it for authenticating instructional material. Technical writers need to understand blockchain terms and concepts and to be able to explain the technology.

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