Science / Tech

Using the Blockchain to Fight Corruption

The Blockchain Trust Accelerator Initiative, according to cofounder Tomicah Tillemann, has a plan to increase voter turnout and make election tampering impossible. A decentralized record of all votes cast in any election could be kept on blockchain ledgers, which cannot be altered or changed without leaving obvious traces of tampering across the entire ‘chain’. If votes are cast via smartphone, creating new blocks as thousands of votes pour in and are permanently recorded, then all the chaos of making it to a polling place, and hoping that your vote is actually counted, vanish entirely. In Myanmar and Indonesia, companies are using blockchain to eliminate high-level bribery and corruption – all financial transactions would be preserved on public ledgers of chains of information blocks, and subject to public scrutiny. Blockchain technology has the power to render the dealings of businesses and nation states into open books, purged of secrecy and the privacy of elite cabals.

Microsoft and Accenture are already working on a blockchain system that would contain the fingerprints of refugees, to create a trans-national digital record of their existence that is as accessible to Turkey as it is to Germany. With so many uses for the storage of information and transactions, blockchain has become a bit of a buzzword to the average Internet user. But ‘blockchain’ sounds more confusing than it is. It’s just a technology that creates sealed ‘blocks’ of transactional information, composed of both human and mathematical ‘checks’ and ‘keys’, which belong to no centralized user who can alter or remove any individual block without changing the data of the entire chain. An entire network builds itself piece by piece, building block after irreducible block. If any block is hacked, the entire chain will reflect the change, making it obvious that someone was trying to censor or edit a piece of information: like a vote, a financial transaction, or even a refugee’s fingerprints. Attempting to hack a single block becomes a balancing act of tremendous pressure, as changing every block in the chain to hide one alteration is extremely difficult. Of course, blockchain has been hacked before – it will take years to perfect the technology for mass adoption by gargantuan economies. But the potential benefits for transparent information are huge.

The transit of goods and services, such as a fish in a market stand, would no longer be obscure and occult, but one could know simply by scanning the product “how the fish was caught, when it was shipped and how it was processed at a factory”. Blockchain is the foundation of cryptocurrencies for this reason – each stage of production in ‘mining’ a Bitcoin is stored in the blockchain. Every single block mined is accounted for in the final record. The transference of a Bitcoin, like that fish in the marketplace, also travels along the blockchain – instant wiring of money with no middleman can take place, with an unalterable record of the transaction from person to person. Efforts to create a safer marketplace in the future, instead of resting on the whims of lobbyists and officials, can be outsourced to technology that makes interference impossible by its own design. The best safeguard against corruption may not be a constitution, as it turns out, but a mathematical foundation for transactions that by their own programming cannot be tampered with.

The promise of artificial intelligence is for technology to embody an idea by its own design, and for a programmed system to achieve its aims more perfectly than human good intentions. Of course, it is dangerous to rely so heavily on technology, but it seems an unavoidable fact that many of the rules and norms of society will become digitized, and co-opted by algorithms. Facebook and Twitter have already changed the way news is read and distributed. Resisting the technological basis of our society is only a hope for time to stand still – it is far more productive to latch onto technologies like blockchain in their nascent stage and understand all the potential good they could achieve.

An open and democratic blockchain that contains all financial exchanges could change the way that journalism and corruption function. In the hypothetical case of a corrupt Senator receiving ‘dark money’ from an influential group of billionaires, that Senator’s campaign contributions could be traced to their original sources just by following the blockchain ledger. Sure, by avoiding blockchain, illegal bribes and secret donations could still occur – but that only incentivizes anti-corruption activists to move toward a single virtual economy. If banks and businesses adapt to blockchain, there would be no hiding. Imagine a public record of every single politician, and alongside their name and photograph, a list of every donation they have received, with every donor public. This itself could destroy oligarchy, if an engaged public decided not to support candidates who were only propped up by big money, as Bernie Sanders alleged about his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Likewise, the sale of weaponry from one nation to another could be tracked. The construction of a missile in a Lockheed Martin factory in Ohio, then packaged and sold to Syrian rebels, could all be traced on a free and open blockchain ledger. The embezzlement of money, funneling of money into political campaigns, and international exchange of sales would all be documented, and so the crucial political task would be to ensure that access to blockchain ledgers remains free and open. The websites hosting decentralized technology must themselves be decentralized – that will be the ultimate political challenge in ensuring that blockchain impairs corruption. Then, journalists around the world can seize upon the massive increases in transparency.

Of course, this virtual economy of the future is still just a projection. The most well-known use of blockchain currently is in the mining of cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin. In many ways, the potential of blockchain and the potential of virtual currency are inextricably bound. For those seeking to overcome the limits of nationhood and monetary policy, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies provide a secure currency that transcends national borders. With the blockchain functioning as the bank ledger, no one’s money can simply ‘vanish’ the same way that catastrophic crises struck the American financial system in 2008. Each block in a chain contains information that belongs to no centralized party, and is shared between senders and receivers, in the case of a Bitcoin transaction. It is, in a sense, more real than your money sitting in a private bank.

The modern economy without blockchain is already an abstraction – the stock market is as removed from actual productive labor as could possibly be, and the derivatives betting market is equally as confusing to the layperson as cryptocurrency and blockchain. The modern economy is a runaway train – virtual currency is simply the natural extension of how abstract capital already is in the modern world. If money can be earned from sitting in a bank account, multiplying from nothing, why can’t a series of energy-intensive digital ‘mining’ operations also represent the invention of new money? And furthermore, with an alien currency suddenly arriving on the world stage in the form of Bitcoin, representing a GDP of around 250 billion USD, could Bitcoin owners potentially bail out nations and institutions in the future to come? Slashed federal budgets and debt-crippled nation states open the door for Bitcoin to enter the world stage as an outside source of venture capital. The potential for humankind is frightening and new: the total fusion of private capital with the public state.

As a species, we have only very recently discovered the concept of virtual space. The industrial revolution itself is hardly two-hundred years old. Contrary to the predictions of Marx, global capital, rather than bending at the spine like an unwieldly Leviathan, has fused with technological development to produce the basis of all communication, information and transaction in the world. As rapidly as social media has become the center of entertainment, news and opinion, so too will more revolutionary technology take the place of banks, records, government filings and the storage of information. And whether we like it or not, this technology will be owned by corporations and wealthy institutions. Our best bet is for the technology to be open and decentralized like blockchain.

 

Alexander Blum is a science fiction writer. Follow him on Twitter @AlexanderBlum0 

 

If you liked this article please consider becoming a patron of Quillette

11 Comments

  1. Lee Moore says

    I am much to old and stupid to follow all this. But amongst the many things I missed in this article were :

    1. how this keeps my vote secret
    2. how the system knows it’s me voting in the first place
    3. how I keep my banking transactions private

    • It doesn’t, it doesn’t, and it doesn’t.

      What blockchain does is create an immutable history where any alteration is mathematically recognized. So, in the case of voting it “could” insure that votes weren’t changed/altered but not that YOU voted on YOUR ballot. It makes that assumption.

      For banking, it creates a permanent history of transactions but has nothing to do with privacy. It simply makes it a multi-pass transaction equivalent much like we currently have with credit cards and the dispute process.

  2. Brent says

    Your vote won’t be attached to your name but instead an encrypted key. No one will no who you voted for.

    • Lee Moore says

      So how does the system know that it’s me using my encrypted key ?

  3. Pingback: Other Publications - ALEXANDER BLUM

  4. Blockchain techniques would likely offer very little to voting integrity. Here are the test cases for my conclusion:

    1. Impersonation voter fraud (I vote for you) — blockchain plays no role in authenticating the user
    2. Machine based voting fraud (no matter what you vote, machine votes for X) — blockchain would not prevent since it would assume the “Vote data” from the machine is valid even if it doesn’t match what you entered on the touchscreen/etc.
    3. Absentee voter fraud (either extra votes cast or votes intercepted and not counted) — blockchain per case 1 has no way of knowing extra votes nor can it detect missing votes.

    The only thing a blockchain would / could do is if valid votes are fed in it could maintain that history as unalterable — but that isn’t an issue since post-certification the results are irrelevant anyway. The example of Moore’s contesting in AL right now is an example..once his opponent is certified then even if there were fraud detected the bell is rung. They might force a re-election and unseat/etc — but even then the blockchained information is irrelevant. Garbage in, garbage preserved.

    That being said, I do appreciate that there is outside-the-box thinking on how contemporary technical solutions to other problems may apply here. How it fits corruption, not the narrow case of voting, is that it blockchain preserves an unaltered historical record. Unfortunately, it assumes public distributed copies. It would never work for finances since you’d never have people willing to store multi-GB copies of data they really don’t care about just in case it’s needed in the future. If the storage were restricted to a small # of firms (Google! Apple!) then it still wouldn’t solve the problem since they could fork/remanufacture if they were captured by the same politicians/groups/infiltrators.

    For bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, what blockchain does is put the brakes on theft and create traceability of transactions. Ironically enough, you have libertarians / anarchists thinking “it’s private, no government…good good good!” without understanding how it works. If You buy from Me with bitcoin, then I buy from a vendor with that same bitcoin the government can get the transaction from the vendor, get my identity, and then lean on me to reveal yours. All the anonymity disappears once bitcoins are used en-masse with white-market businesses who can have their records subpeona’d.

    • Extremely helpful (and well written for which we techno-dumbos are very grateful.) Pretty much confirms my gut thoughts – ie that it’s a cracking scheme for things you want “chain of custody” type proof for, but not going to help on privacy and the integrity of the initial inputs.

  5. “If money can be earned from sitting in a bank account, multiplying from nothing, why can’t a series of energy-intensive digital ‘mining’ operations also represent the invention of new money?”

    I liked the article but the above quote shows a pretty simplistic view of how and why interest is generated.

    The money that is in your account is not multiplying from nothing. This is an absurd assertion.

    The money goes into your account, the bank then uses it to invest, the bank is good at investing so they usually make a profit from their investments, they then pay you a tiny percentage for allowing them to use your money to make investments.

    Now it doesnt work exactly like this because the system is complex, but the basics of where that money is generated is as I described.

    The problem with crypto currencies and why they could be bad for society is that you are taking the power of who has control of the money away from people who know how to use and invest it properly to people who have the biggest and most powerful servers.

    Additionally crypto currencies atm are too unstable. The reason the US dollar works is because of the confidence behind that is generated by dedicated institutions behind the scenes like the Federal Reserve.

    In other words the reason that all the businesses around the world prefer to use US Dollar is that they know that if the integrity of the dollar was to falter there would be a fail safe/moderator that would essentially fix the problem (like what happened in 2008).

    This gives businesses the confidence to keep investing, producing and growing, using a US based economic system.

    Bitcoin has no such fail safe (as we can see from its very drastic rises and falls) and thus I predict that until they find a solution, crypto currencies have no chance of becoming the main form of currency for any given society.

    • I agree with your analysis of how banking works – ie once you hand your money over to the bank, notwithstanding that it’s called a bank “deposit” ; as a matter of law it isn’t a deposit as a layman might think of it (ie it doesn’t remain your money, deposited with the bank for safekeeping.) It becomes the bank’s money, and what you have is a debt claim against the bank, ie a loan. So if the bank goes bust, tough. It’s not your money and you have a bad debt. The reason you get interest from the bank on your loan is because of the difference in value between money now (what you hand over to the bank) and money later (what the bank promises to give you in return.)

      But there’s no reason at all why you can’t have “bitcoin banking” in just the same way – ie you deposit 100 bitcoin with the bank (ie lend it 100 bitcoin, passing ownership of the 100 bitcoin to the bank in return for a promise from the bank that they’ll give you 103 bitcoin this time next year. So long as the bank doesn’t go bust, you earn 3 bitcoin interest. But only cos you took the risk that you might not get your 100 bitcoin back.

  6. Debbie says

    Bitcoin is the most well-known blockchain application, and its use for anonymous ‘darkweb’ transactions has been widely publicized. But ironically, the potential surveillance/tracking applications of blockchain should give pause to civil libertarians and persons who value privacy.

    Imagine the possibilities, like your political opponent in the 2062 election digging thru blockchain data to find out that you donated to a candidate back in 2032 who — how could you have known? — was taken down by shameful scandal in 2057. You’re tarnished by association, and you lost the election.

  7. Arbind says

    The block chain solves the double spending problem, that’s why BitCoin actually works.
    The same mechanism can be used to prevent double voting from a single account.

    Everything on the blockchain is publically accessible, so it would be easy to count the votes, yet all transactions remain anonymous, so you it would be very difficult to know who cast the vote.

    However, there would still need to be a way for someone to not have 2 accounts – this is where a smart contract would come in (see the Ethereum blockchain).

    In addition to being able to represent a digital asset (such as currency, or loyalty points, or in this case a ballot), some blockchains can also include code – the smart contract.

    There would need to be a smart contract running on the blockchain, where a decentralized app (dAPP) would register a voter by evaluating their id and the voter would recieve some sort of registration token as well as the address of the smart contract that they would need to send their vote to.

    The smartcontract and the dApp would also be opensource code of course, so anyone could detect flaws in the system. The dApp implementation could ensure that there was no likely way for an individual’s registration to be associated with the transaction they make on the blockchain.

    So a complete system might include:
    – The Candidates
    – The Ballot
    – A programable blockchain (Like Ethereum)
    – A smartcontract (functionality to register candidates, register voters and vote)
    – A decentralized app to register candidates you can vote for
    – A decentralized app to provide voter registration
    – A decentralized app that allows a registered voter to cast vote
    – The Voters

Comments are closed.