Blockchain technology has numerous potential applications that can benefit society. Many people believe a new era of decentralized agency is on us. With all the talk about how blockchain will change the future through decentralization, not much of the discussion has asked what would happen if this technology ended up in the wrong hands. Can the benefits of blockchain make centralized institutions more powerful? And if so, would it lead to negative consequences?
How Can Blockchain Be Used Against People
Most of the talk about the negative consequences of cryptocurrencies centers on privacy coins. The public tends to view these cryptos as a means of facilitating crime. However, there are other possibilities where blockchain technology could be used to harm people.
In his article for the Atlantic, Ian Bogost argues that if users aren’t careful, the perks of blockchain will come back to haunt those who once championed it. Bogost argues that corrupt states could use the blockchain technology to create a sort of super-authoritarian regime.
The way this would go about centers in blockchain’s ability to mine data. Data is the new oil. Who you are, where you shop, what you like, all of this is already continuously monitored by several applications you use on a daily basis. Major companies that provide “free” apps and services often trade that free access for your information. Blockchain-based systems aim at removing that component and giving control of data back to the users, but what if a government used that function to track and monitor its people?
This is Bogost’s central argument, “The invitation to transform distributed-ledger systems into the ultimate tool of corporate and authoritarian control might be too great a temptation for human nature to forgo.” He points out that it could be possible for a government to use blockchain to oppress people collecting information on their history, DNA, personal beliefs, personal associations, etc. and then control their experiences in the world. He provides a scenario where working together, a set of systems could prohibit a person from entering a facility and another set of systems could then collect that person for “loitering” and incarcerate them.
This scenario is a very specific one, but it illustrates the fear of what could happen if enough data were taken from various interactions by a government through the blockchain with the goal of harming people. There are problems with this, however.
Blockchain Naturally Restricts Control
Simply put, governments cannot stop cryptocurrencies from functioning. Their decentralized nature makes it impossible to completely shut down without, in a sense, shutting down the internet. These systems do not have one specific point to target where a government can break them.
There are several benefits of blockchain that would naturally add to the freedoms of any persons in an oppressive, authoritarian regime. And we are currently witnessing several use cases for them.
There is no way to “shut down” the current internet because it is decentralized, but it is possible to restrict access to it because regulations govern internet service providers and specific services. And this occurs because those systems are centralized.
Currently, there are projects in development to create a fully decentralized internet. This service would function regardless of country or location; it would be non-restrictive because there would be no centralized point to regulate, and it would provide unrestricted access to information.
To establish an oppressive regime, you would need to control the transfer of information. This would be nearly impossible on a decentralized internet. Communication and ideas would be able to travel without censorship throughout the world, including an oppressed nation.
While an oppressive government with a state-run cryptocurrency could control the assets of its citizens by forking codes or even blacklisting their currency, the use of private coins benefit people in an oppressive regime and make tracing the interactions of these people impossible.
Privacy coins allow users to burn and swap coins while interacting through a private ledger that hides transactions. They can also burn public keys to make it even harder to trace transactions. What’s more is that wallets can have funds donated to them from outside parties to help fund and support any oppressed peoples.
Encryption is the foundation for blockchain. Already, messaging services are in used to help protect the information shared between two parties. Without the ability to monitor and control communications, oppressive governments would have a much more difficult time controlling and oppressing their people. Encryption enhances privacy and privacy enforces autonomy.
The most effective means of stopping an authoritarian government is to prevent its inception; public ledgers accomplish this. A major selling point of blockchain technology is its transparency. The public can witness transactions and interactions over the network at any point in time.
Blockchain allows people to audit the activities of officials to help cut back on corruption. People would be able to see where campaign funds are coming from and whether or not officials accurately counted votes and much more. These measures help people have a better idea of what is happening and help them prepare to react when something suspicious occurs.
Blockchain Builds Strength Through Decentralization
Many oppressive governments come into power and stay in power through the control of information. Creating a decentralized way of transmitting and storing information would go a long way to protect people from governments who wish to do them harm. Governments may choose to use private blockchains to protect their interests, but the citizens of those states would benefit from being able to dodge censorship thanks to the decentralized nature of the blockchain.
Looking towards the future, it always helps to exercise caution before fully accepting any change. There are obstacles to overcome as blockchain becomes more and more integrated into our society, and we should be cautious but hopeful as we look towards a future where blockchain and society grow more and more connected.