The 1s and 0s of life
For a guy who has on two occasions written in favor of the robot apocalypse, I can be pretty twitchy about security in tech. I surf behind a VPN (because the NSA is super interested in my herbal tea blends) encrypt important files for storage, all that good paranoid stuff.
But of course, the real nightmare when it comes to tech security isn’t on the consumer end. We’re not worried about robots swiping unused RAM or reading our browser history (well, I’m not; I don’t know what you’ve being doing lately, you deviant) nearly so much as the new reality that everything from money to mortgage papers is digital, and 1s and 0s don’t much care who’s futzing with them.
Big bad middleman
A fine state of play on the issue can be found here, but the TL;DR is that to date a money-based economy has required an intermediary between buyer and seller, someone whose only job is to manage the money itself. That middleman’s big job is verifying the value of what’s being exchanged, resolving the “double spending problem” of spending the same unit of value more than once.
Fun fact: that’s literally why there are coins.
Originally the heads on the “heads” side weren’t just rulers showing off, they were stamps from the royal treasury that confirmed the proper amount of precious metal was in that particular lump. The authenticity problem is literally as old as money, and now we’ve gone and thrown away the stamp.
Thanks to the authenticity problem, historically it’s been impossible to perform a straight peer-to-peer exchange of value with money: note that yours has deceased politicians on it. In theory, digital exchange makes that unnecessary. Cryptographic technology can guarantee authenticity better than a green picture of a dead guy, and exchange can occur between people directly.
That’s bitcoin, for example. But bitcoin is just the application of the idea. The idea behind bitcoin and a bunch of other clever digital things is blockchain.
Blockchains are “distributed ledgers.” All transactions made by members in a set time period are put in an encrypted “block,” then the blocks are distributed to the network and the first member to validate the encrypted transaction gets a bonus. As soon as that’s done, the block is timestamped, locked, and added to the chain. Every member’s ledger is identical because the records are generated automatically, and instead of going through a bank or credit card company, users have direct access to all their information at any time.
Best of all, with current technology blockchain is effectively hack-proof.
Once a block is stamped it never changes again, permanently linked to every other block, every block is safe behind the kind of crypto that – no hyperbole – a hacking tool can’t finish the necessary math because the Sun will blow up first, and you have to hack every block to get to any of them. It’s a big deal.
Austin startup Factom just blew away their latest funding round. Factom is about “blockchain as a service,” implementing blockchain for transaction security and information storage in vital industries.
Their new hotness is Harmony, a service aimed at the mortgage industry that will integrate blockchain into existing tech to guarantee security for sensitive housing data. World-class VCs like Tim Draper and corporate stalwarts like Overstock and Stewart Title have already bought in.
Nobody was ever sure if bitcoin was a monster, a punchline or the Big New Thing, and it suffered for it. But the blockchain tech created for it is legitimately important, a straight-up new way of doing business, and courtesy of Factom, it sounds like Austin will kick off the revolution.