Returning to the original intended purpose of blockchain: timestamps

What was blockchain technology originally intended for? It is generally believed to have been created in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto as part of his white paper on the creation of Bitcoin (BTC). Since Bitcoin would be built on decentralized ledger technology, a blockchain had to be established as the foundation for the cryptocurrency.

Since 2008, blockchain technology has expanded far beyond cryptocurrency use and is now being applied in a variety of use cases from healthcare to finance to green technology and more.

But blockchain technology 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 history lesson about blockchain

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 problem of certifying documents – when they are created and when they are modified – would become a problem.

They explained that in the past you could just flip through the pages of a notebook to see dated notes. They cite other means of certification, such as writing themselves a letter or notarizing something, but in those cases tampering with documents would be immediately detected. But not so in a digital world, where documents can be changed without any evidence left behind.

“The problem is timestamping the data, not the medium,” they wrote. The first solution they proposed was to simply send a document to a timestamping service. The TSS will then keep a copy for safekeeping, which can be released for comparison if necessary.

What’s the problem with this solution? It relied on a third party who might mishandle it.

Instead of an external 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 entire 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 sure that the TSS actually processed the request, that the hash was received correctly, and that the correct time was stated.

But what happens if the TSS puts a fake timestamp on the hash? Haber and Stornetta proposed two solutions: (1) Use bits from previous requests to create new ones, forcing a chronological record; and (2) Make the entire system decentralized, transparent and auditable.

For anyone familiar with how blockchain technology works, this is it. Blocks are created by drawing from the last block’s hash and solving for the new block’s hash. Once a block is added, it is verified by nodes on the blockchain in a decentralized system and locked into the ledger so that it cannot be changed.

Original use cases

Haber and Stornetta outlined use cases for these types of timestamps, citing inventions or ideas whose authorship would need to be proven. Since 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 have been tampered with, they can prove the originals through the timestamp. They envisioned timestamps encompassing not just text documents, but original audio recordings, photos, videos, and more.

While Haber and Stornetta eventually formed their own company called Surety, which acted as that TSS (and, interestingly enough, published their hashes every week in New York Times ads since 1995), the idea never quite 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 expired.

Why do we need timestamps today?

The need for document authentication was not just a concern of the 1990s. In a world where so much digital content is being produced and distrust of content on the internet seems to be growing, timestamping may just be the way to achieve the transparency and accountability needed.

The idea is simple. A unique hash is generated from the text, title or date of a piece of content and is added to the blockchain. Not only does this lock the time a piece of content was created in a publicly distributed ledger, but if any piece of that content is changed, the hash also changes – showing that it has been tampered with or a new version has been created.

This allows content creators to prove they made the piece at any time by calling it up on the blockchain. Timestamps can also put an end to plagiarism and copyright disputes, as original work can be found linked to the hash in an immutable blockchain.

Timestamps also increase reader confidence. With layers of identity added, they can know exactly who wrote the content and when, and view an authentication certificate. The more sites use timestamps, the more readers will get used to associating timestamps with transparency, accountability, and authenticity – and will reject any unverifiable content without a timestamp. Timestamping also has a use case in e-commerce, where buyers can see original terms and agreements and not get ripped off by a suddenly updated version that voids a warranty.

With a simple implementation, the Internet could become a safe, trusted place where authors can trust that their content will remain safe and where readers know that what they read is verifiable. It’s been a long time since the original paper in 1991, but those ideas are needed today.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Sebastian van der Lans is the president of The Trusted Web Foundation and founder and CEO of WordProof. He is the winner of the European Commission’s Blockchains for Social Good Contest. He is on a mission to restore trust to the internet.

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