A Philosophy of Blockchain: Is Secrecy a Danger?

A Philosophy of Blockchain: Is Secrecy a Danger?

Proof of stake could endanger the equality of the blockchain and hidden centralizations could endanger its trustlessness. However, there’s another innovation that may endanger both…

written by Shannon Appelcline

Upon inventing Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto created an open ledger that anyone could write to as long as they followed the consensus rules. This design revealed two crucial elements of blockchain design. First, it declared the equality of the blockchain: anyone could see anything on the blockchain thanks to its permissionless design; and anyone could add any valid transaction to the blockchain thanks to its censorship resistance. Second, it demonstrated the trustlessness of the blockchain: anyone could verify that both the blocks and their transactions were validly constructed.

But the founding principles of a community are constantly endangered as it grows and evolves. As we’ve written in past philosophy articles, we feel that proof of stake could endanger the equality of the blockchain and that hidden centralizations could endanger its trustlessness. However, there’s another innovation that may endanger both: secrecy.

A Confidential Possibility

There has been a bit of secrecy in Bitcoin from the start, as Satoshi Nakamoto states in the original paper: “The necessity to announce all transactions publicly precludes [traditional privacy, which limits information about an exchange to the parties involved and a trusted third party], but privacy can still be maintained by breaking the flow of information in another place: by keeping public keys anonymous.”

from Satoshi Nakamoto’s paper. https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

However, the blockchain is not truly anonymous. At best, it’s pseudonymous and even that’s quite fragile. It depends on strict key hygiene, where everyone constantly creates new keys, and even then there’s the danger of correlation if someone can detect clusters of addresses and connect any of them to a real-world identity.

The quest for privacy beyond Nakamoto’s pseudonymity has loomed large as Bitcoin has matured. In 2013, Greg Maxwell proposed CoinJoin as one of the first solutions; it simply mixed together bitcoins, making it harder to correlate them. That same year Adam Back detailed “bitcoins with homomorphic value”, which would eventually become the Confidential Transactions of Blockstream’s Elements Project. Back took a different tack by blinding the contents of a transaction, so that people outside the transaction could only see that it occurred (and what the mining fee was). The fact that later non-Confidential Transactions could leak information about previous Confidential Transactions is probably what led to the creation of fully privacy oriented blockchains, such as Monero in 2014 and Zcash in 2016, each of which took different approaches to secrecy.

Obviously, there is interest in increased blockchain privacy: it’s been one of the driving forces for cryptocurrency adoption. This transactional secrecy has a variety of advantages, the most crucial of which is fungibility: with true privacy, it becomes impossible to trace the provenance of an individual transaction, which is crucial for working currency; without it, the cryptocurrrency in individual transactions could be censored if the network did not like who used it or how it we used.

However, we must balance this growing philosophical desire for complete secrecy with the philosophies that have been a developed part of the blockchain from the start. Secrecy may actually enhance some of the blockchain’s core ideals, such as its censorship resistance. And, it doesn’t hurt others, such the blockchain’s trustlessness: protocols like Blockstream’s Confidential Transactions were explicitly designed to balance out the inputs and outputs of a transactions, allowing verification by anyone.

But that’s not to say that secrecy doesn’t have problems of its own.

The Dangers of Cryptocurrency Secrecy

One of the original goals of Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) was to give power back to the people. In the physical world, we’ve lost agency to corporations, government, and plutocrats. The blockchain gave that back to us in part due to its transparency. It suddenly became possible to require that transactions of public entities be public in a way that we never could have considered in traditional financial systems. We could require that proxies publicly reveal their votes, that elected officials detail their contributions, and that corporations declare transactions related to their advertisements, their guarantees, and their certifications — and many of these revelations could be verified through the blockchain itself.

But now, as a shroud of secrecy is spreading across blockchains, expectations of transparency are rapidly fading. If cryptocurrency becomes as opaque as traditional currency, then the opportunity to demand transparency, to truly change the rules of the game, will evaporate.

Confidential transactions and privacy-protecting digital currencies are being advertised as a way for us to have privacy, but it’s them, the rich and the powerful, who will make the greatest use of this power. We already see this in the opaque finances of the physical world, at places like Deutsche Bank, which is facing legal action as the result of laundering twenty billion dollars of Russian money. If the transparency of the blockchain becomes opaque, it’ll happen there too. The rich and the powerful will hide their transactions so that they can maintain the influence and authority they’ve gathered in the physical world and extend it to the digital world — using the very tool that’s supposed to reverse those trends.

In addition, secrecy may turn cryptocurrencies into what people fear. There has long been concern over criminal uses of the blockchain but the transparency and pseudonymity of most blockchains have worked against that — and in fact have made criminals vulnerable when they mistakenly thought they were safe. Cryptocurrrency secrecy could let them in.

Secrecy may turn cryptocurrencies into what people fear. Photo by Julius Drost on Unsplash

Perhaps we, as a blockchain community, will assess these costs as acceptable given the privacy gains for the common person. Or perhaps not. But the problems become even greater when moving from cryptocurrency to the wider world of digital assets, a topic that’s dear to us at Bitmark.

The Dangers of Digital Asset Secrecy

Bitmark defines and defends digital property through the Bitmark Property System, which allows people to register their digital assets and data, then to license, sell, loan, or otherwise leverage that digital property for the good of both themselves and our society. KKBOX’s use of the Bitmark blockchain to record royalties for the use of digital music shows how this system can help individual musicians, while UC Berkeley and Pfizer have demonstrated the benefits of recording health data permissions to support health studies and clinical trials that could contribute to the whole world. But for digital assets to have value, it’s vitally important that ownership records be public, not secret.

Last year we wrote about the case of Shepard Fairey, whose famous “Hope” stencil portrait of Barack Obama became the source of a legal dispute because Fairey didn’t license the original photographic source. That case study demonstrates our need to know who owns something so that we can license it (or purchase it or borrow it): secrecy works against the interests of both asset holders and hopeful licensees. The music industry offers another use case: rights information should be stored in electronic data, but it’s often wrong, which has left artists unable to collect billions of dollars in royalties.

This problem of determining asset ownership is so large that it became a major focus of the US Copyright Office in the ’00s. As corporations like Google tried to turn physical assets into digital assets, they ran into a major problem with “orphan works”, where they couldn’t discover who the rights-holder for an asset was, and so were unable to attain permission (or refusal) to use the work. The Copyright Office was thus tasked with determining whether these orphaned works still served to “promote the progress of Science”, one of the major purposes for copyright in the United States. Their conclusion was:

“Both the use of individual orphan works and mass digitization offer considerable opportunities for the diffusion of creativity and learning. Too often, however, the public is deprived of the full benefit of such uses, not because rightsholders and users cannot agree to terms, but because a lack of information or inefficiencies in the licensing process prevent such negotiations from occurring in the first place. As countries around the world are increasingly recognizing, these obstacles to clearance are highly detrimental to a well-functioning copyright system in the twenty-first century. The Office thus agrees that a solution for the United States is ‘desperately need[ed]’ …”

In other words, the US Copyright Office recognized that society and its institutions needed to be able to discover both the attributes and ownership of assets, so that it could better itself and reach its full potential.

As corporations like Google tried to turn physical assets into digital assets, they ran into a major problem with “orphan works”. Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

Obviously, having ownership information easily available could have helped Shepard Fairey and Google, who each wanted to reuse existing assets. It could have helped musicians, who desired to receive payments for their music. But it goes far beyond that and far beyond these cases of accidental secrecy. By knowing who owns resources, a society can find those resources when it needs them — whether it be iron ore required for construction or health data needed to solve a medical problem. By knowing who owns items, a society can contact the owners of those items — perhaps because those items are surprisingly dangerous (due to a recall) or perhaps because they’re surprisingly valuable (due to a need). Finally, as the US Copyright Office noted, registration of ownership can allow negotiation, a necessary element to resolve negative externalities related to a marketplace, as discussed in Coase Theorem. Having purposeful secrecy would directly contradict all of these use cases, which is why it’s even more problematic for digital assets than for simple cryptocurrency.

The US Copyright Office suggested legalistic methods to solve this problem. But there’s another, better solution, one that can avoid works being orphaned or misplaced in the first place: technology. It’s the solution offered by the Bitmark Property System, which organizes and codifies the ownership of digital assets on a property rights blockchain for the good of both the rights holders and our society. By maintaining these deeds in the public eye, not in secrecy, we can enable all of these use cases: Fairey’s artistic reimagination of a photo, Google’s digitization of classic works, and our society’s ability to locate, recall, or purchase items of importance.

Conclusion

Many people laud the privacy of the blockchain, something that was possible once upon a time when transactions depended on cash in the physical world, but which is becoming increasingly difficult in a world of electronic banking on the internet.

But, we should be aware that secrecy of this sort has very real consequences. Some people might value their privacy enough to empower the plutocratic powers of the physical world in cyberspace, though we think there’s real weight to both sides of the argument. But when we delve into the wider world of digital assets, we think this position becomes increasingly dangerous.

Which is why the Bitmark Property System is open and transparent, just as Bitcoin was in its original design.

Further Reading

Alt, Casey, Sean Moss-Pultz, Amy Whitaker, & Timothy Chen. November 2016. “Defining Property in the Digital Environment”.
Bitmark_defining-property-dig-env.pdf.

Bitmark. Retrieved July 2019. “Why Property Rights Matter”. Bitmark. https://bitmark.com/en/property-blockchain/why-property-rights-matter.

Bitmark. October 2018. “How to Use the Blockchain to Riff Artwork, Sell PDFs, and Otherwise Gain Economic Control of Your…” Hackernoon. https://hackernoon.com/bitmark-how-to-use-the-blockchain-for-property-rights-ecf9f5e67e77.

Blockstream. Retrieved 2019. “Elements by Blockstream”. The Elements Project. https://elementsproject.org/.

Deahl, Dani. May 2019. “Metadata is the Biggest Little Problem Plaguing the Music Industry”. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/29/18531476/music-industry-song-royalties-metadata-credit-problems.

Hsiang-Yun L. February 2019. “Coase Theorem in the World of Data Breaches”. Human Rights at the Digital Age. https://techandrights.tech.blog/2019/02/22/coase-theorem-in-the-world-of-data-breaches/.

Maxwell, Greg. August 2013. “CoinJoin: Bitcoin Privacy for the Real World”. Bitcoin Talk. https://bitcointalk.org/index.php?topic=279249.0.

Nakamoto, Satoshi. October 2008. “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”. https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf.

Poelstra, Andrew, Adam Back, Mark Friedenbach, Gregory Maxwell, and Pieter Wuille. 2017. “Confidential Assets.” Blockstream. https://blockstream.com/bitcoin17-final41.pdf.

US Copyright Office. June 2015. “Orphan Works and Mass Digitization”. Copyright.gov. https://www.copyright.gov/orphan/reports/orphan-works2015.pdf.

Van Wirdum, Aaron. November 2015. “Is Bitcoin Anonymous? A Complete Beginner’s Guide”. Bitcoin Magazine. https://bitcoinmagazine.com/articles/is-bitcoin-anonymous-a-complete-beginner-s-guide-1447875283.

Van Wirdum, Aaron. June 2016. “Confidential Transactions: How Hiding Transaction Amounts Increases Bitcoin Privacy”. Bitcoin Magazine. https://bitcoinmagazine.com/articles/confidential-transactions-how-hiding-transaction-amounts-increases-bitcoin-privacy-1464892525.

By Bitmark Inc. on August 29, 2019.

A more sustainable business model for artists—register property rights on the blockchain to own…

A TEDx talk by Bitmark advisor: Amy Whitaker

A more sustainable business model for artists—own your work and get paid via property rights on the blockchain

A TEDx talk by Bitmark advisor: Amy Whitaker

“We live in an age of democratized creativity, but not yet democratized ownership.”

Anyone working in the arts knows the greatest plight of an artist is finding a sustainable business model that simultaneously, (1) generates enough interest from patrons and income to afford materials to continue creating work while also (2) allowing unencumbered time to create. It’s a fine and tricky balance, and one that plagues all types of artists: writers, painters, choreographers, directors, designers, the list is long.

“Two fears I think we all have: the fear of not being able to make a living, and the fear of not being true to yourself creatively.”

Many artists find comfort in creating commissioned work: finding an established partnership where a patron funds the entire project and the artist is freed from the task of raising the money for project or personal expenses. A patron might allow a large budget for a work of art, but oftentimes, the higher the budget, the more particular the parameters of the project. This influence extends into pleasing the patron’s whim or ideas of what the artist should create. Additionally, in a commissioning partnership, the patron owns the artwork, not the artist.

Maybe this structure feels outdated, but it’s not; the same set-up happens all the time for artists who receive grants, which in the arts is the most common way to fund work (and also happens to make up the highest percentage of funding for most projects). Any artist who applies to receive grant money must also report back to the grant organization on their progress. It is often the case that if an artist does not fulfill the grant requests, money is either taken back or not given at all.

Artists who choose the different path of funding their own work can get bogged down by spending time making money (i.e. a “day job”) that leaves them with little time for their art.

A new potential solution: ownership rights

Intertwined with this time versus money conundrum is the concept of ownership. Selling artwork is the most traditional way of making money in this particular field. But, any notion of selling, first requires a clear notion of ownership. Plagiarism in all art forms is rampant. And it’s only become worse because social media platforms are a great tool to engage large audiences and followers, to accumulate views and shares and likes, but the copying and freely sharing have ruined many artists’ ability to claim ownership of their creative works. And clear ownership is a coveted thing.

Blockchain isn’t a panacea for all issues that artists face. However, specific types of blockchains can provide artists with a way to establish ownership of their work, which in turn facilitates clear exchanges with others and leaves them with a more sustainable, efficient way to be paid for the work they create.

Amy Whitaker, an NYU professor, artist and researcher, describes eloquently in the TEDx talk posted below how the blockchain can help amend many woes for artists (in both digital and physical mediums) by providing a tool to register ownership rights of their works.

As Amy describes in a WSJ article, the formulation of blockchain technology came about to organize information and data in a more truthful, secure and efficient way. The decentralized structure of a blockchain means is set up by having “many dispersed but interconnected copies of a shared ledger. The truth could never be typed over if there were too many linked ledgers to alter.”

Blockchain provides the backbone to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum — this immutable, truthful ledger is what solves the double spending problem (the act of spending the same tokens in two places and getting away with it) in those currency systems. A blockchain set up specifically to record property rights employs a set of digital rules (basically a secure transfer system that enables you to share or sell an asset or property without “double spending” that property and tricking the system or your potential buyer) that ensures your property is yours and not anyone else’s — not even the platform where you register the property. The Bitmark blockchain, for example, is public and open source. It is decentralized, with complete transparency for all parties who wish to see its contents (not the secure details of data and personal information, rather just the ownership titles and transfers). It is structured to register property rights at minimal fees, and set up to essentially issue legal (not smart) contracts with any buyer or seller at scale.

Ownership rights are twofold: 1 claiming the artwork as personal property means defining the work as well as the entity who owns it; 2 establishing the rights of that property: fair use of the image in other forms (prints, posters, cards, etc), and payment if and when the work is sold, or used in the case of licensing.

When artists can clearly register their work as personal property, buyers can then request to buy their work. The artist can receive payment upfront before they transfer the title of the work to the buyer.

With ownership rights, artists can benefit in the following ways:

  • Limit issues around fraud and copying — The blockchain is a digital ledger, with immutable time stamping that is public. When something is registered on the blockchain, it’s permanent, which mitigates questions of who owns what when looking at copies of art work.
  • Set the rules and terms of use for their works — Blockchain security makes it possible for artists to get paid for their works without giving their art over before receiving payment.
  • Enable faster payments — Because the blockchain can be linked to banks and digital currencies, artists can get paid faster than with traditional models.

In the TEDx talk below, Amy describes how the blockchain can help artists:

For further reading, check out Amy’s original whitepaper “The Social Life of Artistic Property” and her previous academic paper “Artist as Owner Not Guarantor: The Art Market from the Artist’s Point of View.”

By Bitmark Inc. on December 11, 2018.

Defining Property in the Digital Environment. Part Two.

Defining Property in the Digital Environment. Part Two.

The First Principles of Digital Property

In Part One of the series we took a look at the history of property. In this post we begin with a fundamental question, What is property?

What is Property?

At its simplest level, a property is an asset plus a property title. While most people probably consider property to be the stuff that they own, property is technically defined as the rules governing access to and control of assets, whether those assets are land, means of production, inventions, or other creative works. Within every society, laws known as property rights regulate which entities can assert ownership claims to which assets and what rights come with such property claims:

Property rights.

A valid ownership claim functions as a “bundle of rights” for a specific property and can include such rights as:

  • the right to exclusive possession
  • the right to exclusive use and enclosure
  • the right to transfer ownership (conveyance)
  • the right to use as collateral to secure a debt (hypothecation)
  • the right to subdivide (partition)

Property rights are neither absolute nor static; they can vary widely across different societies and can change over time. In Medieval Europe, common law considered all water resources as being statically tied to the land rights in which they were located, such that landholders owned parts of rivers with full accompanying rights. Over time, property rights for water resources have generally changed from being land-based to use-based, thereby allowing non-landowners to hold enforceable property rights. Also consider how different national flavors of political and economic ideologies, such as capitalism, socialism, and communism, have differently dictated who can own which properties, e.g., communism mandating that all means of production can only be owned by the state.

Within most property rights regimes, a property title is the legal instrument by which an entity claims ownership of an asset. Property titles are often embodied in a formal legal document, such as a real estate deed or a motor vehicle title, which serve as physical evidence of the possessor’s claim to property rights.

Property titles are the clearest legal means for defining private property rights.

One function of the property title is to uniquely identify the asset being claimed, most commonly by recording distinctive feature sets, such as geographic coordinates or geological features for land, or serial numbers, such as vehicle identification numbers (VIN) for motor vehicles. The moment that properties lose this unique identification, they become interchangeable commodities that behave more like money than like property. In order for money to circulate seamlessly and easily within a community, it must be completely fungible: It needs to be mutually interchangeable, functionally indistinguishable, and completely impersonal. The moment someone values one dollar bill more than another is the moment the dollar bill ceases to be money and starts to be property. However, the opposite is true for property. To establish an enduring record of a property’s authenticity, an asset’s unique identifier must be recorded in the property title as a permanent and immutable pointer to the asset, such that the asset can always be identified from its corresponding property title.

A second function of a property title is to make the bundle of property rights portable by acting as a container that allows its rights to be transferred from one owner to another. For assets that require a property title, transfers of ownership must be publicly recorded via a centralized government entity, such as a county land registrar or a state department of motor vehicles, in order for the transfer of property rights to be legally recognized. This history of ownership, or provenance, is most often tracked via a formal property system, which records the complete provenance of every registered property:

Property systems.

Piracy and Property Rights

In an ideal world, every property would have a property title. Property titles are the clearest legal means for defining private property rights. At the simplest level, property is provenance. The ability to demonstrate clean title is what protects one’s investment in a property by guaranteeing strong provenance. However, current property systems suffer from high transaction costs, which is why property titles traditionally have been reserved for physical properties whose valuations are high enough to justify the property title costs, such as real estate, vehicles, or works of art. However, if these transaction costs could be reduced to near zero, property titles could be issued for any asset, thereby clarifying property rights and further reducing negative externalities resulting from ambiguous ownership claims.

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto Polar has gone so far as to argue that, particularly in developing regions, the lack of access to robust property rights systems is the primary underlying cause of many nations’ most urgent negative externalities. According to De Soto, this inability to demonstrate legal ownership of assets compels many citizens, particularly small entrepreneurs, to seek extralegal remedies for their business problems since traditional means of judicial redress are only available to legal property owners. This massive exclusion from property rights systems results in the emergence of two parallel economies with disparate rules and risks: the official legal economy and a makeshift extralegal economy. It is the flourishing of extralegal shadow economies that generates many of the widespread negative externalities for their larger societies. De Soto coined the term “dead capital” to describe assets locked into such extralegal economies since their lack of property rights explicitly excludes them from becoming wealth-generating property within the larger global economy.

Within the digital environment, there exists a similar extralegal shadow economy in the form of online piracy of copyrighted works. While it is tempting to depict the rise of piracy as an unfortunate side effect of contemporary digital technologies, copyright infringement is as old as copyright itself. However, the recent prevalence of online piracy begs the question: What is it about the current state of digital assets that impels people, who in any other context would never commit crimes of piracy or theft, to engage in acts of piracy? While there are undoubtedly cases of piracy that are a simple matter of people wanting to get something without paying for it, De Soto’s research suggests that, more often than not, such recourse to extralegal solutions stems from too few property rights rather than too many. In the absence of readily available property rights for desired digital assets, otherwise law-abiding citizens resort to piracy to get what they want. Consider that a large portion of piracy occurs in countries that lack international licensing agreements to access high-demand digital assets. A more inclusive and universally accessible property system with low transaction costs that establishes clear property rights for digital assets could radically reshape the current piracy landscape by transforming disenfranchised pirates into invested property owners.

Privacy in the Digital Environment

Finally, it is important to recognize that, in the case of digital assets, there is a significant convergence of private property rights and rights to personal privacy. These seemingly unrelated sets of rights were once intrinsically linked. Historically, the ability to circumscribe an area of land as one’s own created an adequate level of protection of personal privacy through defense against unsolicited trespass. Thus, the fundamental right to private property also served as protection to personal privacy by clearly defining exclusive access rights to properties.

As new technologies have developed, courts have continuously needed to reinterpret the relationship between private property and privacy rights beyond the boundaries of physical properties by extending privacy protections to “people, not places.” These protections have included rights to privacy for posted correspondence, phone conversations, and any form of personal communication in which the content is presumed to be private. Unfortunately, however, these core personal privacy protections have not been as reliably applied to the Internet and personal data. A primary reason for these shortcomings is that most privacy laws are focused solely on protecting the content of digital communication while totally disregarding privacy protections for user metadata, which is often more revealing than the actual content itself. As an example, consider the fact that a mobile device’s detailed log of user location data is usually not protected, despite the fact that the ability to surveil someone’s daily movement patterns is, in most cases, a much more threatening privacy intrusion than monitoring any authored content transmitted from the device.

Online data privacy faces an additional complication with the continued popularization of social media applications and a growing trend towards centralized, third-party cloud computing platforms, both of which customarily require users to voluntarily store personal data on their remote servers. Under many legal systems, the act of voluntarily giving private information to third parties is considered an explicit forfeiture of any expectation to privacy rights over that information. The result of this voluntary surrender of privacy is that government authorities have been permitted to bypass traditional protections against search and seizure without first demonstrating probable cause and obtaining judicial search warrants. Within the context of digital data assets, this doctrine has been interpreted such that any third-party Internet service that stores user data — including everything from Internet service providers, cellular data providers, social media websites, and cloud storage services — must comply with government requests to access to that data, thereby significantly weakening privacy protections across nearly every category of contemporary digital communication practices.

The ability to convert digital assets into properties offers a way out of this privacy dilemma by realigning rights to private property and rights to personal privacy—

—that is, essentially creating the digital equivalent of a fence that affords digital property the same bundle of private property and privacy rights historically attached to land. It is in this potential to protect digital property that we most clearly recognize that private property and privacy are two sides of the same coin.

A property system for digital properties must therefore offer both legal and technical affordances for protecting property rights and privacy rights. At the legal level, the property system must integrate into existing property rights frameworks to such an extent as to guarantee exclusionary access to the data in the same way that exclusionary access is afforded to physical properties. At the technical level, the property system must provide a minimum capacity for heightened security and privacy through strong encryption practices and other barriers to unauthorized access in the same way that security fences or monitoring systems provide an added measure of privacy for physical properties.

In the final and third part of the series we’ll introduce how Bitmark is cleaning up the digital environment by bringing real property rights to digital assets and data.

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By Bitmark Inc. on February 22, 2017.