August 10, 2017

The Fate of Online Trust in the Next Decade

Theme 4: Some say blockchain could help; some expect its value might be limited

Trust is embedded in many things that foster relationships and transactions. Money is the prime example of a trust-infused artifact. People exchange it for other things of value because their governments say that their currencies are “backed” by the authority of those governments and, often, other governments. In days of yesteryear, money was tied to specific other things of value like gold. But nowadays, money has value and can be exchanged for goods and services because there is society-wide “trust” that the institutions supporting it have value.

I think, over time, blockchain will help with trust a lot and get people over what concerns they do have.Anonymous communications executive

Blockchain is a system that aims to replace organizational guarantors of trust with a technology-based arrangement. It was designed to be a “trust protocol,” as Don and Alex Tapscott explain in their book, “Blockchain Revolution.”  Blockchain was first created by a person or persons using the name Satoshi Nakamoto for enabling the digital currency bitcoin. The blockchain is like a global spreadsheet or ledger that uses peer-to-peer networks to verify and approve transactions. In the case of bitcoin, it was a scheme aimed at certifying currency-based exchanges. As the Tapscotts write:

“Each blockchain … is distributed: It runs on computers provided by volunteers around the world; there is no central database to hack. The blockchain is public: anyone can view it at any time because it resides on the network, not within a single institution charged with auditing transactions and keeping records. And the blockchain is encrypted … to maintain virtual security ….

“Every ten minutes … all the transactions conducted are verified, cleared, and stored in a block which is linked to the proceeding block, thereby creating a chain. Each block must refer to the preceding block to be valid. This structure permanently timestamps and stores exchanges of value, preventing anyone from altering the ledger ….

“This new digital ledger of economic transactions can be programmed to record virtually everything of value and importance to humankind: birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, deeds and titles of ownership, educational degrees, financial accounts, medical procedures, insurance claims, votes, provenance of food and anything else that can be expressed in code.”

The Economist provides another useful blockchain explainer here.

Advocates say they expect that the widespread implementation of blockchains could disrupt every “trust” intermediary in the economy, including banks and other finance institutions, insurance, legal operations, accounting, health care record-keeping and government bureaucracies. They hope it will “cut out the middle man” and allow people to have more secure and private control over personal information and transactions. A share of the experts in this canvassing shared this enthusiasm – or agreed it had substantial potential to build trust in online interactions.

However, some of the respondents to this canvassing expressed some level of wariness about how far blockchain adoption will spread and what its impact will be. This section of this report starts with the most enthusiastic comments, followed by the most skeptical.

Subtheme: Blockchain has potential to improve things

Most people who responded that blockchain technology might have an impact said it could enhance the likelihood of security and privacy. Many said it is just one of the possible approaches that could be implemented to assure more trust in transactions.

An anonymous longtime Silicon Valley technology firm communications executive commented, “The fact is we already trust online interactions a lot – for banking, for travel, for job applications, social interactions/sharing, etc. I think, over time, blockchain will help with trust a lot and get people over what concerns they do have. It will take some great use cases (and not technical under-the-hood explanations, which don’t help people adopt it) to gain traction.”

Brian Behlendorf, executive director of the Hyperledger Project at the Linux Foundation, said, “The net effect will be positive, as the greater use of blockchain technology to tie together the systems of the world outweighs the ever-present concern over the security and sanctity of individual systems.”

Dan York, senior content strategist at the Internet Society, commented, “Blockchain systems are one of the many different building blocks that can bring about a more-trusted Internet. They may have a role as a distributed ledger system – but we’ll need to see how their usability evolves and what kind of deployment we see outside of cryptocurrencies.”

John Sniadowski, a systems architect, wrote, “Trust levels will vary across timelines based on the changing threat landscape and high-prominence security failures. Being able to prove identity with high degrees of certainty is of paramount importance. Until identity systems are improved to become more robust against theft and impersonation there is no real basis for online trust. This will impact across all online activity. Identity systems based on blockchain architectures may be able to improve overall trust on transactions. Loss of control of personal information will have an overall negative impact on online trust.”

Glenn Ricart, Internet Hall of Fame member and founder and chief technology officer of U.S. Ignite, said, “Blockchains will help to preserve a degree of privacy in a world which increasingly expects transparency.”

Frank Elavsky, data and policy analyst at Acumen, commented, “Regarding blockchain systems, I feel as though the incredible integrity of blockchain systems could lead to serious problems for people in power who [are discovered committing] regular, unsavory acts within the world of finance. Because of this, the result could be very good for the majority of people or it could be very bad – people in power tend to manipulate systems to their benefit.”

An anonymous respondent commented, “With the rise of bitcoin or other virtual currencies people may switch to these entirely as global currencies, as the dollar and euro may see too many ups and downs.”

An anonymous media industry technology consultant said, “Blockchain systems may help increase the trust, but these systems will need to be better integrated into existing (and new) online services. Time will increase the trust level. As long as these systems are not compromised and continue to work as ‘advertised,’ people’s trust in them will increase.”

An anonymous computer science professor at a European university wrote, “People are already engaging in all sorts of activities online, they will just spread more as these can also be done with any sort of mobile device and at any time. There is a need to build trustworthy – private, sound and secure – systems to ensure the increase in usage. I expect health care and political and civic life to be most strengthened by this trend. Blockchain will lead to the disappearance of jobs such as trusted third parties, but it will allow the appearance of new possibilities and new jobs.”

An anonymous respondent observed, “Blockchain systems feel like they’ll remain slightly more specialised, though there’s certainly a possibility of a big corporation picking it up and normalising it.”

The emergence of blockchain is not a final answer to perfect trust – just as anti-virus software has not provided perfect protection. Blockchain technology will, however, increase our trust in the online world.Jannick B. Pedersen

An anonymous professor of media and communications at an Australian university commented, “All areas of social life will be affected by deepening of online interaction. Blockchain systems can play a positive role in strengthening trust – as long as implementation involves all stakeholders, and is framed democratically.”

Matt Bates, programmer and concept artist at Jambeeno Ltd., commented, “On blockchain technology … I suspect it might have a great positive effect on, e.g., transparent corporate and government auditing practices.”

LT Wilson, a respondent who shared no additional identifying details, commented, “It seems that blockchain and Ethereum will help ensure encrypted, authentic history of much more than financial transactions.”

Jannick B. Pedersen, a futurist and impact investor, said, “The emergence of blockchain is not a final answer to perfect trust – just as anti-virus software has not provided perfect protection. Blockchain technology will, however, increase our trust in the online world.”

Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois, Springfield, predicted, “Blockchain architecture networking will enable students to assemble custom degrees and certificates with online courses and competency assessments collected from a wide variety of sources.”

Norwich Unversity’s M.E. Kabay said of blockchain, “These cryptographic signatures may help decrease anonymity, but they won’t stop pseudonymity.”

Don Philip, retired lecturer, observed, “Blockchain is a bit of a wild card. It’s a new technology and the banks are watching it closely. I would expect that banks will be among the principal users and providers of blockchain-managed transactions, partly because they have already gained people’s trust in financial transactions.”

Anonymous respondents also wrote:

  • “The ease of using online commerce is quickly displacing reliance on brick and mortar. Blockchain trust systems may speed this development.”
  • “Improved encryption and the emergence of blockchain will improve trust overall. However, there will likely be a period of growing pains; perhaps that is what we are experiencing now.”
  • “I am excited about blockchain, but can only imagine financial uses. Real applications will overcome my lack of imagination.”
  • “Blockchain will enable secure transactions in currencies, as well as data. Social reputation will also continue to influence who one chooses to do business with.”
  • “Trust will be increased if technologies such as blockchain are adopted more and more. Trust will be increased if governments put in place policies for consumer protection, data protection, etc.”

And an anonymous principal security consultant predicted that 2026 is too soon for blockchain solutions to have significant impact, writing, “Bitcoin and other blockchain-based systems have their benefits, but it does not seem likely that any one blockchain will see massive adoption over the next decade, unless there are significant improvements, particularly in storage requirements and reaction times.”

Subtheme: There are reasons to think blockchain might not be as disruptive and useful as advocates expect it to be

Henning Schulzrinne, a professor at Columbia University and Internet Hall of Fame member, wrote, “Blockchain systems do not seem to address any real problems, except if you are in the business of distributing ransomware. For example, the recent SWIFT attacks would not have been prevented by blockchains – since the initial transaction was done by a legitimate actor, internally compromised, all the other signers would have simply confirmed that the compromised bank indeed wanted to transfer millions to a casino in the Philippines. There are real opportunities for improving electronic financial transactions, but anonymity and non-reversibility are bugs, not features.”

Blockchains are not a magic bullet; they might mitigate some of the effects on economic activity, but the crypto-currency scene has been rife with scams so far and I don’t see that changing any time soon.Anonymous respondent

Adrian Schofield, applied research manager, commented, “Urban dwellers will use more e-commerce, e-retail, e-services products for convenience and speed of service. Rural dwellers will use more e-health, e-education, e-government products. My personal view is that blockchain systems will not become mainstream within 10 years, due to a combination of vested interests in the existing currency markets and lack of trust in the new system.”

Will Kent, e-resources staff member at Loyola University Chicago, wrote, “People will become more accustomed to blockchain pay systems. Soon they will become integrated into more-traditional pay systems and no one will bat an eye. Regardless of how technology will impact these activities, users will find comfort in their convenience. Safety will be improved for mass consumption with an ‘acceptable’ number of compromised accounts, passwords, zero-day exploits, keeping developers, companies and users on their toes. I should clarify that just because people trust their interactions doesn’t mean their interactions will be what they want them to be.”

One anonymous respondent commented, “The blockchain is just one technology among many and its role will likely be marginal compared to the overall system.” Another was highly critical, writing, “Blockchains are not a magic bullet; they might mitigate some of the effects on economic activity, but the crypto-currency scene has been rife with scams so far and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Not to mention there are methods to reverse-engineer or otherwise manipulate chains, which undercuts their position.”

An anonymous software architect proclaimed, “The blockchain is overblown and solves nothing that isn’t already solved in some other way. Besides, it doesn’t scale – when you have to have global agreement on local decisions … nope, it’s not gonna happen.”

An anonymous respondent wrote, “Blockchain? You are talking gibberish to most people.”

Another anonymous respondent said, “I am not convinced the blockchain is essential for everything. I think it will have a few uses. But there are massive costs to run the blockchain, so it might be simpler to just trust a few institutions, and let them charge a tiny fee to run a centralized infrastructure. (Just like we all pay big fees to credit card companies right now, but they are failing at the security aspect.)”

An anonymous respondent commented, “It will depend on new systems and evolving expectations. Amazon depends on trust; will it maintain it? Blockchain is about avoiding trust and will prove mostly about libertarian fantasy.”