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The Other Side of Blockchain: We Choose What We Want to See

Show me the blockchain! No doubt about it, blockchain has become a mega technological trend tasked to save us from the data tsunami of the digital age. First, the financial industry and now, the life sciences/healthcare, consumer goods, energy and others are turning to blockchain. Just recently, Deloitte released the results from Blockchain Survey 2017, a study conducted in November/December 2016 to more than 300 senior executives. The study exposed how blockchain in 2017 is becoming both a “Top 5” priority (according to 25% of respondents) and extending beyond the finance sector (ie. 35% increase in intended deployment in healthcare). To see the full survey results, download this infographic.

All of this is creating great buzz for commercializing and advancing blockchain adoption. Today executives are moving from questions like “What is blockchain?” to more business-oriented ones such as “How, what, when and where?” within their enterprise.

BUT, there is one key question rarely brought to the table: What could go wrong with blockchain? There is a dark side and it has nothing to do with the nefarious uses of bitcoin.

History has taught us that an unintended circumstance of evil derives from something that was meant to deliver good. Perfect example: The Internet. The Internet created the information highway, fueled new economies, revolutionized business operations, and so much more. However, today we see an ugly side – phishing, malware, hacking, scams, and cyber-attacks – that is transforming the Internet from an asset to a liability. We don’t believe, at least I don’t, that the intended consequence of the Internet was to make victims out of believers of a technology that drove economic growth and fostered collaboration. And now, 30 years later, there is the mad dash on how to fix it.

Here we are again. New technology (blockchain) about to the revolutionize the business world, provide transparency and accountability, achieve collaboration and harmonization, deliver increased consumer gratification, eliminate fraud and SO MUCH MORE under the umbrella of trust. All of this sounds familiar, where do we sign up?

But wait a minute, for every good there could be a bad and that holds true for blockchain. A couple of examples:

  • Benefit #1: While immutability is one of the best-selling features of blockchain, it may also be its “Achilles Heel.” Why? The benefit and the bad are the same: no entry on the blockchain can be deleted or changed. Why is this bad? Just remember that humans are still behind the blockchain. What happens if a transaction (i.e. data point) is entered incorrectly either un/intended, can it be corrected? Yes AND No.
    • YES, technically, based on the groundbreaking research [Stevens Institute’s Dr. Giuseppe Ateniese and Accenture] of the redactable blockchain, the main key holder can edit the original entry.
    • And, NO, there will ALWAYS remain the immutable scar containing the erroneous information after the original entry is edited. It will live on the blockchain forever.
  • Benefit #2: Autonomous. With autonomous software, it makes it very easy to get the data, publish it once, and leave it there FOREVER. All of this leads to efficiency, optimization and removal of third parties. Let’s consider a nefarious character who has access to unique ID’s containing credit card data, steals them, publishes them to another blockchain where another crooked credit card merchant starts processing them. In an autonomous world, the information gets processed without being flagged until someone realizes money is missing from their accounts.

In both scenarios, the technology’s security did not fail but humans did. So, where in the technology can we safeguard from human misfortune?

Today, we are living the lesson of the Internet again. Many are hesitant to bring up clear and present challenges in order to accelerate adoption in exchange for social responsibility.

As an advocate and believer in blockchain, we need innovators, tech gurus, advocates, experts and regulators to assume their responsibility and address these ethical challenges now. Since we are all very committed to advocating blockchain for everyone, should we not be just as committed to safeguarding the integrity of its core principle: “In blockchain we can trust.”

Are there other examples of potential blockchain pitfalls? Sound off in the comments below.

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Maria Palombini

Director, Emerging Communities & Opportunities Development, GBSI; Healthcare Life Sciences Practice Lead, IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) - Maria currently leads the IEEE SA Healthcare & Life Sciences Practice working with a global community of stakeholder volunteers who are committed to establishing trust and validation in tools and technologies that will change the approach to discover therapies, deliver care, and ultimately enable a sustainable and universal quality of care for ALL. Maria is the founder of DisruptiveRx, an information gateway addressing the critical need for pharmaceutical and life sciences executives to connect innovation with business strategy to re-think the process of the drug development and distribution value chain. She has extensive experience in building global media brands in multiple industry sectors. She holds a B.S. and B.A. from Rutgers College and an M.B.A. from Rutgers Graduate School of Business at Rutgers University.

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One Comment

  1. IMO, neither of these appear to be justified concerns. The “redactable blockchain” is a misnomer…if it’s redactable, it’s not a blockchain, no matter who has put forth the idea. Off-chain/side-chain transactions can be misreported, and oracles can supply wrong inputs…these do not fundamentally threaten or undermine the Blockchain’s utility. The applications have to foresee these contingencies and provide for other options. The blockchain only guarantees “truth” as it sees it (what enters the block is the truth). Pls see the link https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Off-Chain_Transactions for more on off-chain transactions.

    The public blockchain is an ecosystem that is teeming with malicious entities side-by-side with honest peers. This ecosystem has (in the past and the future) to examine and solve, by community consensus, any risks such as crooked operators. That Bitcoin (and Ethereum, for that matter) have come thus far is good evidence of the resilience and robustness of the basic algorithms.

    This is not to say that risks do not exist (for instance, quantum computing vs elliptic curve crypto)…just that these risks will be addressed and resolved through community processes.

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