Most people are aware of Bitcoin and similar digital currencies by now. But few realize just why many financial experts and governments are excited about this technology. Digital money is just scratching the surface because underneath it is a very valuable development in the form of blockchain. Bitcoin transactions aren’t just exchanges of money, they can also include messages.
Blockchain was designed to ensure digital currency contracts remained set in stone and all transactions could be clearly tracked. It prevents fraudulent transactions and reduces the risk of problems like stealing, identity thief, fake currency, etc. The creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, included a message in the first Bitcoin transaction block, which is now called the genesis block. The message was included the text, “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks”, which was an indication of his belief of the instability of current fractional-reserve banking systems.
Such messages or bits of information are a matter of permanent record and can’t be removed from the blockchain. Blockchains are `append only` meaning you can only add new information but can’t edit existing information. Bitcoin’s Proof of Work block construction mechanism (mining) ensures that the data is permanent and the open access makes it decentralized.
The Internet is controlled by ISPs, governments, and private agencies, which can prove to be problematic down the line because many people rely on the Internet as their primary source of information. Corrupted, tailored, or edited data can have an impact on users and their decisions.
That’s why it’s important to create spaces where information can be stored permanently and without alteration. The Internet Archive is a collection of over 16 million books, 4.3 million videos, and other such forms of information. It is free, open to everyone with unrestricted access to information, and a good source to find original material.
Bitcoin Core developer Peter Todd realized just how important these open and free collections of information are. That’s why he and his team decided to timestamp all of the 750,000,000 files in the Internet Archive into a blockchain through the OpenTimeStamps project.
Because all blocks in the chain are permanent records, they can’t be altered or removed, even by the Internet Archives, without anyone noticing. That makes all the information secure loss-resistant. As blockchain is decentralized, there’s no way to eliminate the library.
How Does it Work?
Recording the timestamps for all files in the library was a massive undertaking that required effort, dedication, and skill. The team did it to showcase OpenTimeStamp’s abilities and potential to keep track of information. They a cryptographic tool called Merkle Trees and the Bitocoin blockchain.
1. Merkle Tree
This is a cryptographic structure that consists of hashes. All pieces of data are hashed by scrambling and condensing them down to a series of numbers. This short string of numerical values is called a hash. This random set of numbers doesn’t have much use and you can’t even extrapolate the original information from it. However, it can serve as an identifier. When unaltered original data is hashed again, you’ll get the same string of numbers that is stored in blockchain.
If the data is even minutely altered, the resultant hash will be different, which will immediately show the information has been changed. Multiple hashes can combine to eventually form a Merkle Tree. This tree will continue to grow in perpetuity because you can add as many hashes to it as you want. You can check all original data against the Merkle Tree root without needing to add more to it.
The Merkle Tree is established with the help of Bitcoin’s blockchain. The proof-of-work system ensures all data exists in an unaltered form with multiple additions wherever needed, which makes it similar to a Merkle Tree in essence. The tree has all information organized in hashes but blockchain has them in a timeline. Every block is hashed to be included in the following block, which is then hashed to be included in the one following that, and so on.
Proof-of-work ensures all mined blocks are in record and there’s clear evidence to show when and where they were mined. That means resources are tracked and the blockchain timeline can’t be muted. Trying to change history of this timeline will disrupt or invalidate the following blocks, which will render the data chain invalid. The only way to remove the data will be to re-mine the block you want to alter without the information and then alter all blocks that follow. A single block requires thousands of dollars to mine so re-mining can become very expensive very quickly.
The combination of Merkle Tree’s organized structure and Bitcoin blockchain’s permanent record that can’t be muted ensures you have incomputable record of information that can be used as a verification tool. The potential of OpenTimeStamps is endless.