Circling back to blockchain’s originally intended purpose: Timestamping
What was blockchain technology originally intended for? It’s generally presumed that it was created in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto as part of his white paper, creating Bitcoin (BTC). Since Bitcoin would be built on decentralized ledger technology, a blockchain needed to be established as the foundation for the cryptocurrency.
Since 2008, blockchain technology has expanded well beyond cryptocurrency usage and is now being applied in a variety of use cases from healthcare to finance to green tech and more.
But blockchain tech didn’t start with Satoshi’s white paper. It was actually invented in 1991 as a way to verify and protect content through a concept called timestamping.
A blockchain history lesson
In Satoshi’s famous Bitcoin white paper, he cites another paper: “How to Time-Stamp a Digital Document,” published by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta in 1991. The two researchers knew that, in an all-digital world, the issue of certifying documents — when they were created and when they were changed — would become an issue.
They explained that in the past, you could simply flip through the pages of a notebook to see dated entries. They cite other means of certification, such as mailing oneself a letter or having something notarized, but in those cases, tampering of documents would be discovered immediately. But not so in a digital world, where documents can be altered with no evidence left behind.
“The problem is to time-stamp the data, not the medium,” they wrote. The first solution they proposed was to simply send a document to a timestamping service. The TSS would then retain a copy for safe-keeping, which could be brought out for comparison when needed.
What is the problem with this solution? It relied on a third party that might mishandle it.
Instead of a third-party verifier, they would use a cryptographically secure hash function, which would serve as the unique identifier for a piece of content. Instead of sending the whole document to the TSS, the creator would send the unique identifier instead. Upon receipt, the TSS would make a confirmation with a digital signature. By checking the signature, the client would be assured that the TSS actually did process the request, that the hash was correctly received, and that the correct time was included.
But what happens if the TSS puts a false timestamp on the hash? Haber and Stornetta proposed two solutions: (1) Use bits of previous requests to create new ones, which forces a chronological record; and (2) Make the whole system decentralized, transparent and checkable.
For anyone familiar with how blockchain technology works, this is it. Blocks are created by drawing from the hash of the last block and solving the hash of the new block. Once a block is added, it’s verified by nodes on the blockchain in a decentralized system and locked into the public ledger, unable to be altered.
Original use cases
Haber and Stornetta outlined use cases for this kind of time-stamping, citing inventions or ideas where authorship would need to be proven. Because the documents are recorded as hash functions, it timestamps intellectual property and patents without revealing the contents. They also cite examples where, if a company has documents that were tampered with, they can prove the originals through the timestamp. They envisioned timestamping to encompass not only text documents but original audio recordings, photos, videos and more.
While Haber and Stornetta eventually went on to create their own company called Surety, which acted as that TSS (and, interestingly, published their hashes in the New York Times classifieds every week starting in 1995), but the idea never fully caught on. It wasn’t until Bitcoin was created in 2008 that blockchain technology was finally fully created — four years after Haber and Stornetta’s patent on it ran out.
Why do we need timestamping today?
The need for authenticating documents wasn’t just a 1990s concern. In a world where there’s so much digital content being produced and when distrust in content on the internet seems to be growing, timestamping might just be the way to achieve the transparency and accountability that’s needed.
The idea is simple. A unique hash is generated from a piece of content’s text, title or date, and is added to the blockchain. This not only locks in the time at which a piece of content was created to a public distributed ledger but if any part of that content is altered, the hash alters too — showing that it was tampered with or that a new version was created.
This allows content creators to be able to prove at any time that they created the piece by calling it up on the blockchain. Timestamping can also put an end to plagiarism and copyright disputes since original work can be found linked to its hash in an immutable blockchain.
Timestamping also increases trust for readers. With added identity tiers, they can know exactly who wrote the content and when and can view an authentication certificate. The more sites that adopt timestamping, the more readers will get used to associating timestamping with transparency, accountability and authenticity — and will reject any unverifiable content that not timestamped. Timestamping has a use case in e-commerce as well, where buyers can see original terms and agreements and not be cheated by a suddenly updated version that nulls a warranty.
With a simple implementation, the internet could become a safe, trusted place where authors can feel confident their content will remain secure, and where readers know that what they’re reading is verifiable. It’s been a long time since the original paper in 1991, but those ideas are needed today.
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