The first time I heard about the blockchain was during a party where a friend of mine spent the night talking with the ears of this thing called Bitcoin and why I should buy some. I suspect that many others have had a similar experience. Although Bitcoin is credited with bringing blockchains – a type of distributed digital ledger – in popular discourse, it was not the progenitor of the key features of dark technology.
In fact, the oldest blockchain in the world precedes Bitcoin by 13 years and hides in plain sight, printed weekly in the classified section of one of the most widespread newspapers in the world: The New York Times .
The world's first blockchain
Inside, a blockchain is just a database that is managed by a network of users and protected by encryption. When new information is added to the database, it is broken down into "blocks", which can be considered containers for this data. From time to time a new block is created and linked to a "chain" of previously created blocks. Each block has a unique ID called a hash that is created by executing the ID of the block that preceded it and the data stored in the current block using a cryptographic algorithm. This guarantees the integrity of all the data stored on the blockchain because the modification of the data in any block would produce a different hash.
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Today, the "blockchain" is treated as a shortcut to the technology that underlies most of the cryptocurrencies and digital token systems, such as Bitcoin or Ethereum. Although blockchains can be used as an immutable record of financial transactions, this is far from their only use. In fact, any kind of information can be added to a blockchain and in the past everything, from the grass and virtual kittens to sushi and rare art has been stored on a distributed ledger.
The blockchains, as they constitute a chronological chain of hash data, were first invented by the cryptographers Stuart Haber and Scott Stronetta in 1991, and their use cases were much less ambitious. Instead, Haber and Stornetta have imagined technology as a way to stamp out digital documents to verify their authenticity. As illustrated in an article published in The Journal of Cryptology the ability to certify when a document was created or modified is ultimately crucial for the resolution of things such as intellectual property rights.
In meatspace, there is a variety of trivial ways to stamp a document, such as sending the document in a sealed envelope or creating line items in a notepad. In these cases, any evidence of tampering that opens the envelope or attempts to insert a page into the notebook will be obvious. But when it comes to verifying the authenticity of a digital document, it is much more difficult to determine if the document has been modified.
As Haber and Stornetta understood, the timestamp of a digital document would require two problems. First, the data itself should be marked with the timestamp "so that it is impossible to change even a single bit of the document without the change being obvious." Secondly, it would be impossible to change the same timestamp.
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An obvious solution to this problem is to send the digital document to a timestamping service that would save the document in a "digital safe" that meets both the criteria mentioned above. The disadvantages of this approach are that it would compromise the privacy of the person who sent the document and it is possible that the document may be damaged when it is sent or stored by the service.
The solution adopted by Haber and Stornetta was instead to run the document through a cryptographic hashing algorithm, which produces a unique ID for the document. If even a single bit is changed in the document and is run again through the hashing algorithm, the ID will be completely different. This idea was coupled with the related idea of digital signatures, which can be used to uniquely identify the signer. Therefore, instead of sending the entire document to a timestamping service, users could simply send the cryptographic hash value, which could be signed by the service to make sure it was received at a given time and was not corrupted, a type notarial authentication of an IRL document.
But where does the game come into play The New York Times ? In cryptocurrencies, hashes are recorded in public accounts known as blockchains where anyone can see for themselves that data integrity is intact. Haber and Stornetta realized that the national record card could serve a similar purpose.
What Haber and Stornetta described in their 1991 research paper is a prototype version of the blockchains that feed the majority of cryptocurrencies today. In fact, when Satoshi Nakamoto first described Bitcoin in a whitepaper of 2008, three of the eight articles mentioned were written by Haber and Stornetta. When asked how he felt to be the inspiration for Bitcoin, Stornetta told Wall Street Journal that he felt "pretty cool".
But 14 years before Bitcoin was invented, Haber and Stornetta created their own service timestamp called Surety to put their scheme into action.
Surety's main product is called "AbsoluteProof" which acts as a cryptographically secure seal on digital documents. Its basic mechanism is the same as described in the original paper by Haber and Stornetta. Customers use Surety's AbsoluteProof software to create a hash of a digital document, which is then sent to Surety's servers where it is stamped to create a seal. This seal is a uniquely cryptographically secure identifier that is then returned to the software program to be stored for the customer.
At the same time, a copy of that seal and any other seal created by Surety's customers is sent to the "universal register register" of AbsoluteProof, which is a "hash chain" composed entirely of Surety's customer seals. This creates an immutable record of all Surety seals ever produced, so that it is impossible for the company or any malicious actor to modify a seal. But it leaves an important part of the blockchain equation: Trustlessness. How can one believe that Surety's internal registers are legitimate?
Instead of posting customer hashes on a public digital ledger, Surety creates a unique hash value of all new seals added to the database each week and publishes this hash value in New York Times . The hash is placed in a small advertisement in the classified section Times under the heading "Warnings and Lost and Found" and appeared once a week since 1995.
According to the company, "this it makes it impossible for anyone, including Surety, to backdate timestamps or validate electronic records that were not exact copies of the original. "Or almost impossible, anyway.
As the co-founder of Ethereum Vitalik Buterin joked on Twitter if someone wanted to compromise Surety's blockchain, they could "make fake newspapers with a different hash chain and circulate them more widely." Considering that New York Times has a daily average circulation of about 570,000 copies, this would probably be the stunt of the century.
Both Haber and Stornetta left Surety more than a decade ago to return to research, but today both work as cryptographers on other blockchain projects. Although they have never seen the rich in the brave new world of cryptocurrencies that they helped to create, Haber and Stornetta are the only people in the world of cryptocurrencies that can claim to have given a new meaning to the "disc card".