Few terms in the tech industry have been more overused than Blockchain within the last few years. What started as a niche, avant-garde thought-experiment of cryptography experts who called themselves cypherpunks has now been reduced to a buzzword used by startups to catch public interest.
Blockchain is a computer network architecture, made public by an anonymous cryptography expert under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The technology allows users to share a public ledger, making the agreed upon information almost impossible to fake or hide. These properties have allowed it to be the foundation for many virtual currencies, the most famous example of which is Bitcoin.
Recently, Blockchain has become such a powerful word that, in a dystopian turn of events, the company responsible for Long Island Iced Tea saw its shares triple last December, after changing its name to Long Blockchain Corp. Previous investors have tripled their money thanks to a name change that was as effective as it was unfounded. The corporation has yet to announce their plans for Blockchain in non-alcoholic beverages.
As if to foreshadow the technology’s impending fall in the public eye, the value of Bitcoin also peaked around December 2017, but is now worth almost three times less than at its peak. The temptation to gamble on growing markets made interest in the actual technology secondary.
The initial premise of a digital, unhackable and anonymous currency appeared a distant hope. Figures of Lamborghini-driving millionaires in their 20s, glorified within the cryptocurrency online communities, were much more successful at catching media attention. This is arguably the greatest fault of virtual currencies; incentives focus on creating more Bitcoin, rather than drawing attention to the technology’s underlying potential.
The elemental principles of creating a secure and unhackable architecture online survive in companies willing to actually develop them, such as IBM. Even the European Union has created a Blockchain Observatory to inspire more European firms to innovate.
While these aspects survive, the ideological attempt to further democratise the internet and centralised systems appears to have been abandoned. No country is investing anywhere near the same amount of money in one of the most obvious uses of this technology, voting.
According to Her Majesty’s Treasury, parliamentary elections within the UK have cost over £100 million since 2005. The 2017 election cost the British taxpayer seven times more than its 1997 counterpart. This trend is not only clearly visible in the United Kingdom but an international phenomenon observable across many European countries and the United States as well.
Estonia has managed to reduce the rise of electoral costs through online voting. According to Estonian Public Broadcasting, an electronic vote costs almost ten times less than a vote in a local polling station. While the safety of the system has been heavily criticised by J. Alex Halderman, an international cybersecurity expert, the potential solutions using an established technology entirely focused on security should at the very least be looked into.
Blockchain systems base themselves on the general agreement between the people within them. Their strength comes from the fact that everyone can confirm whether something is true or not. This is as true for a virtual currency as it is for a vote.
Since its birth, no individual has ever succeeded in fabricating a single Bitcoin. Shouldn’t we expect the same of our votes?
A properly built Blockchain electoral system would allow for safe and verifiable online voting. The implications of these changes are strongly ethical. Would people able to vote from the comfort of their own home be more likely to vote? Could this reduce the ability of political groups to create disincentives for other groups such as students from voting? It would surely help those who are unable to travel to a polling station and make the process easier for those outside of the country.
Projects such as the Open Vote Network, produced by Patrick McCorry, demonstrate how the potential for this use-case has not been ignored within the industry. The Open Vote Network has some critical issues and is not viable in its current form, but it is an incredible step forward considering it was designed by only three researchers.
Despite the terrible reputation the technology has earned itself, it is time to utilise revolutionary discoveries for the benefit of our democratic system. Blockchain will not single-handedly rid us of corruption and abuse of authority as Cypherpunks may have promised two decades ago, but it has the potential to improve a currently unsustainable paper-based voting system.
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