July 15, 2019

How does blockchain work for the average Joe?

Sometimes, amidst the continual back and forth of blockchain hype, we hear the question “So what does it do for me?” It’s a good question. In fact, it’s the question. After all, if we can’t answer that properly, blockchain technology will never be widely adopted.

Sometimes, amidst the continual back and forth of blockchain hype, we hear the question “So what does it do for me?” It’s a good question. In fact, it’s the question. After all, if we can’t answer that properly, blockchain technology will never be widely adopted.

So let’s take a look at what a world with strong blockchain adoption could look like. Before we dive in, a few basic assumptions:

  1. Decentralised tech won’t replace centralised for many, if not most things. It has a complementary role, but in many cases it’s just not a realistic competitor.
  2. On the front end, very little will change. Humans are lazy creatures and most won’t accept something more difficult than they’re used to. If blockchain is to be adopted, it cannot be more difficult than existing systems for end users.
  3. Most of the benefits of blockchain and DLTs will be delivered to business users, and the end user won’t actually see much difference in user experience, only in security and cost efficiencies.

With these assumptions in mind, let’s look at what blockchain and DLT would mean to the average user.

What it will do

Blockchain and other DLTs are, in essence, a type of distributed database — so they will impact the sort of things that currently use conventional databases. As databases are generally invisible to the average user, the difference will be in how their data is processed and managed in the background.

Before we can dig into that issue, let’s take a quick look at how personal data is handled now. For most companies, this can be described in one word: badly.

Seemingly every week we see data breaches, hacks, leaks and failures, all caused by insecure central databases being compromised. This is part of the reality of centralised services, and the consequences range from the mildly annoying (need to change a password) to the potentially life-destroying (money stolen, credit destroyed, confidential records leaked). There’s not a lot we as individuals can do to prevent that sort of thing, because those records are in one central place — we are keeping all our eggs in one basket.

A centralised database makes an inviting target — effectively, it’s a bank vault of data. The protections might be strong, but if thieves get inside? Jackpot. What blockchain technologies can do is effectively remove that tempting target — put personal data in the possession of the individual, and effectively empty that nice, juicy bank vault. It’s a lot harder to raid tens of thousands of personal safes — meaning that everyone is a lot safer.

Now this seems like a wonderful idea in principle, but how can it be done in a way that keeps the convenience consumers expect while still maintaining a stronger level of security?

Papers, please

The big issue in centralised databases is that they hold copies of all the information, which makes them both vulnerable and targets. The best way to mitigate this is to simply not collect copies — which unfortunately can’t be done effectively with centralised technology. To look at it another way, centralised services collect your data so they can check it at any time — thus, it’s on file. But what if they could see your info whenever they needed, without keeping a copy?

A good analogy is the difference between sending a copy of your passport to a company (a common requirement for KYC) or showing your passport to the customs agent at the border. In both cases, they need to validate your identity — but in only one do they keep the document on file.

This difference is because the customs agent validates your identity and lets you in each time, checking your documents with each entry. It’s effective and easy — very few people pass over the border multiple times each day, after all. However, in the case of a centralised online service, iterative validation isn’t possible — after all, who would have the patience to prove their identity every time they wanted to log in — so they rely on case validation. They hold the data, and if they need to access it, it’s there. So how could blockchain change this?

Because of the nature of how blockchain validation functions, it’s possible for each individual to save their documentation on their own storage solution, and use smart contracts to permission others to access it. Because the records are immutable, and because sharing can be permissioned at a very granular level, this would allow a company to validate identity on demand (check the passport) without holding a copy. They could then use a smart contract as a basis of trust, with a condition of “Access is permitted to this site so long as we are permissioned to check this document on demand.”

This doesn’t just work for signing in to things and identity verification, either. Several projects are working on systems to bring access to personal medical records on-chain, which both protects patient privacy and allows for monetization. With these platforms and record permissioning, companies can source patient profiles for study and recruit patients to participate — all fully anonymously.

Making it work

The key to making the blockchain revolution work is making it invisible. Most people are very slow to adopt new technologies, if those technologies have a steep learning curve. Blockchain technology might solve a multitude of problems, but only if people use it — and if issues with password security are anything to go on, the chances of the average user adopting a cryptographic private key are minimal. This is why many projects are looking towards blockchain-invisible technology, where key management is handled through hardware or biometrics solutions.

However, this is the mountain many of the compelling blockchain projects are trying to climb, and we’re very excited to see how they meet the challenge. After all, nobody ever said building a better world would be easy.

Here at THE RELEVANCE HOUSE we believe in the future of blockchain. By doing our part to professionalize and promote the industry, we believe we’re contributing to a more secure, more advanced society for tomorrow. Learn more about us.

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