If you have been following banking, investing, or cryptocurrency over the last ten years, you may be familiar with “blockchain,” the record-keeping technology behind bitcoin. And there’s a good chance that it only makes so much sense. In trying to learn more about blockchain, you've probably encountered a definition like this: “blockchain is a distributed, decentralized, public ledger."
The good news is, blockchain is actually easier to understand than that definition sounds.
What is Blockchain?
At its most basic level, blockchain is literally just a chain of blocks, but not in the traditional sense of those words. When we say the words “block” and “chain” in this context, we are actually talking about digital information (the “block”) stored in a public database (the “chain”).
“Blocks” on the blockchain are made up of digital pieces of information. Specifically, they have three parts:
1) Blocks store information about transactions like the date, time, and dollar amount of your most recent purchase.
2) Blocks store information about who is participating in transactions. A block for your splurge purchase would record your name along with company name.. Instead of using your actual name, your purchase is recorded without any identifying information using a unique “digital signature,” sort of like a username.
3) Blocks store information that distinguishes them from other blocks. Much like you and I have names to distinguish us from one another, each block stores a unique code called a “hash” that allows us to tell it apart from every other block. Let’s say you made your splurge purchase, but while it’s in transit, you decide you just can’t resist and need a second one. Even though the details of your new transaction would look nearly identical to your earlier purchase, we can still tell the blocks apart because of their unique codes.
While the block in the example above is being used to store a single purchase, the reality is a little different. A single block on the blockchain can actually store up to 1 MB of data. Depending on the size of the transactions, that means a single block can house a few thousand transactions under one roof.
How Blockchain Works
When a block stores new data it is added to the blockchain. Blockchain, as its name suggests, consists of multiple blocks strung together. In order for a block to be added to the blockchain, however, four things must happen:
1) A transaction must occur. Let’s continue with the example of your impulsive purchase. After hastily clicking through multiple checkout prompts, you go against your better judgment and make a purchase.
2) That transaction must be verified. After making that purchase, your transaction must be verified. With other public records of information, like the Securities Exchange Commission, Wikipedia, or your local library, there’s someone in charge of vetting new data entries.
With blockchain, however, that job is left up to a network of computers. These networks often consist of thousands (or in the case of Bitcoin, about 5 million) computers spread across the globe. When you make your purchase from Amazon, that network of computers rushes to check that your transaction happened in the way you said it did. That is, they confirm the details of the purchase, including the transaction’s time, dollar amount, and participants.
3) That transaction must be stored in a block. After your transaction has been verified as accurate, it gets the green light. The transaction’s dollar amount, your digital signature, and a digital signature from the company you purchased from, are all stored in a block. There, the transaction will likely join hundreds, or thousands, of others like it.
4) That block must be given a hash. Once all of a block’s transactions have been verified, it must be given a unique, identifying code called a hash. The block is also given the hash of the most recent block added to the blockchain. Once hashed, the block can be added to the blockchain.
When that new block is added to the blockchain, it becomes publicly available for anyone to view — even you. If you take a look at Bitcoin’s blockchain, you will see that you have access to transaction data, along with information about when (“Time”), where (“Height”), and by who (“Relayed By”) the block was added to the blockchain.
Is Blockchain Private?
Anyone can view the contents of the blockchain, but users can also opt to connect their computers to the blockchain network. In doing so, their computer receives a copy of the blockchain that is updated automatically whenever a new block is added, sort of like a Facebook News Feed that gives a live update whenever a new status is posted.
Each computer in the blockchain network has its own copy of the blockchain, which means that there are thousands, or in the case of Bitcoin, millions of copies of the same blockchain. Although each copy of the blockchain is identical, spreading that information across a network of computers makes the information more difficult to manipulate.
With blockchain, there isn’t a single, definitive account of events that can be manipulated. Instead, a hacker would need to manipulate every copy of the blockchain on the network.
Looking over the Bitcoin blockchain, however, you will notice that you do not have access to identifying information about the users making transactions. Although transactions on the blockchain are not completely anonymous, personal information about users is limited to their digital signature or username.
This leads to the important question: if you cannot know who is adding blocks to the blockchain, how can you trust blockchain or the network of computers upholding it?
Is Blockchain Secure?
Blockchain technology accounts for the issues of security and trust in several ways. First, new blocks are always stored linearly and chronologically. That is, they are always added to the “end” of the blockchain. If you take a look at Bitcoin’s blockchain, you’ll see that each block has a position on the chain, called a “height.” As of February 2019, the block’s height had topped 562,000.
After a block has been added to the end of the blockchain, it is very difficult to go back and alter the contents of the block. That’s because each block contains its own hash, along with the hash of the block before it. Hash codes are created by a math function that turns digital information into a string of numbers and letters. If that information is edited in any way, the hash code changes as well.
Here’s why that’s important to security. Let’s say a hacker attempts to edit your transaction, so that you actually have to pay for your purchase twice. As soon as they edit the dollar amount of your transaction, the block’s hash will change. The next block in the chain will still contain the old hash, and the hacker would need to update that block in order to cover their tracks. However, doing so would change that block’s hash. And the next, and so on.
In order to change a single block, then, a hacker would need to change every single block after it on the blockchain. Recalculating all those hashes would take an enormous and improbable amount of computing power. In other words, once a block is added to the blockchain it becomes very difficult to edit and impossible to delete.
Blockchain vs. Bitcoin
The goal of blockchain is to allow digital information to be recorded and distributed, but not edited. That concept can be difficult to wrap our heads around without seeing the technology in action, so let’s take a look at how the earliest application of blockchain technology actually works.
Blockchain technology was first outlined in 1991 by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta, two researchers who wanted to implement a system where document timestamps could not be tampered with. But it wasn’t until almost two decades later, with the launch of Bitcoin in January 2009, that blockchain had its first real-world application.
The Bitcoin protocol is built on the blockchain. In a research paper introducing the digital currency, Bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator Satoshi Nakamoto referred to it as “a new electronic cash system that’s fully peer-to-peer, with no trusted third party.”
Advantages and Disadvantages of Blockchain
For all its complexity, blockchain’s potential as a decentralized form of record-keeping is almost without limit. From greater user privacy and heightened security to lower processing fees and fewer errors, blockchain technology may very well see applications beyond those outlined above.
Improved accuracy by removing human involvement in verification
Cost reductions by eliminating third-party verification
Decentralization makes it harder to tamper with
Transactions are secure, private and efficient
Significant technology cost associated with mining bitcoin
Low transactions per second
History of use in illicit activities
Susceptibility to being hacked
As we prepare to head into the third decade of blockchain, it’s no longer a question of "if" legacy companies will catch on to the technology — it's a question of "when."
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