Blockchains on a Catapult

Several sectors, including Government, are putting significant effort into investigating “authoritative registers you can trust”, or what are sometimes called “distributed ledgers” – the main implementation technology for which are blockchains. Even the BBC has made a radio programme about them.

While widespread awareness of blockchains is relatively new, they are a mature design, building on a well-established theoretical underpinning. The main reason for the variety of terms currently in use to describe blockchains is that officials and high-ups are somewhat nervous about referring to the most famous example to date: the digital currency bitcoin.

The general adoption of blockchains promises to fundamentally transform how data is stored and used. The UK model for encouraging and promoting such transformations is the “Catapult” network. It is puzzling therefore that, despite their clear applicability in a number of areas of national interest and a growing acknowledgement of the need to regain the missing trust in data, blockchains do not appear to have been deemed a priority.

In the simplest terms, a blockchain / register needs to do two things: provide a data store to keep an authoritative list of what it has already done, and modern network-native interfaces, so people can to add new things to that list.

Most current large scale data stores are giant databases, bulk personal datasets, which may be relied on to define what is “correct”, but which predate a world of global connections across worldwide data networks. Under this old model, people put all sorts of people’s data into these datasets… and then look surprised when someone breaks in and walks off with the Ashley Madison customer database.

Some public sector organisations committed to sharing large bulk personal datasets are not having an easy transition to a world where networked access is the norm; some others are starting to do much better.

Which technology you use to implement a register is fundamental, and comes down to a simple question of truth and trust. If a register is based on a blockchain, properly implemented, it is impossible to lie about the state of the world in the past. If a register chooses not to use blockchain, then it can lie.

In the UK, it’s quite rare for laws to have retroactive effect – so the particular implementation that the Government chooses for a “Government blockchain” will, in effect, define its intent. The cryptography inherent in blockchains won’t stop someone changing a past decision; it just won’t let them hide it or get away with lying about it.

What different this time is that the technologies chosen to implement decisions about what’s to be done with our data will themselves reveal a great deal about the intentions of those who require our trust. When the “Catapult” network start looking in this area (since they haven’t yet), what will they choose to focus on?

The opportunities are endless in the provision of trustworthy, accessible and deeply accountable data pools, controlled by the individual, on which basis third parties can offer services to them. Many new entrants to banking operate on this basis – few people want to have to go into the same physical branch each time, and few want their money to just disappear (N.B. If you do, we’re happy to take it).

Many different ‘bulk personal datasets’ of data will remain, but these will increasingly be accessed via APIs, hopefully with tightly audited and controlled access, rather than shipping copies of everyone’s individual-level data around and just hoping it gets there. Outputs of analysis from bulk personal datasets will continue to be published open data; combined with existing and new open registers, these are key to transparency – and are being well covered by the Open Data Institute (which is a bit like a Catapult, but with a better name). Blockchains actually don’t do very much here – they’re no better or worse than anything else.

When it comes to control of your own personal data – that should be kept confidential – the equivalent rethinking of approaches could build “personae data stores” replacing existing broken silos. Your data store would connect only in ways that you know about.

Work on proper APIs to access data currently held in bulk personal datasets is going to be vital. While your bank may internally operate a blockchain for transactions – which is what blockchains became popular for – that’s entirely different to your transactions being visible to anyone other than you and your bank. “Everything public” is not the only way to do a blockchain; bitcoin is public, but that’s because bitcoin didn’t want to be a centralised bank. (There are variants around bitcoin which changed their minds and took a different approach.)

All these provide interesting opportunities and new perspectives, pointing to a new data world.

The Overton window is as real in technology as it is in politics. Just because something is useful doesn’t necessarily mean it will gain public acceptance. And while the UK enters a period of reevaluation – considering whether some things could be done very differently, for example – those whose money comes from the abuse of bulk personal datasets are unfortunately unlikely to think differently.

They may have to.

Sep 2015
POSTED IN Uncategorized

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