What was blockchain technology originally intended for? It is widely believed that it was created by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 as part of his white paper on creating Bitcoin (BTC). Since Bitcoin would be based on the decentralized ledger technology, a blockchain had to be set up as the basis for the cryptocurrency.
Since 2008, blockchain technology has expanded well beyond the use of cryptocurrencies and is now being used in a variety of use cases, from healthcare to finance to green tech and more.
But blockchain technology didn’t start with Satoshi’s whitepaper. It was invented in 1991 to validate and protect content through a concept called timestamps.
A blockchain history lesson
In Satoshi’s famous Bitcoin whitepaper, he quotes another paper, “How to Time-Stamp a Digital Document,” published in 1991 by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta. The two researchers knew that in a purely digital world, the problem of certifying documents – when they were created and when they were changed – would become a problem.
They explained that in the past, one could simply flip the pages of a notebook to see dated entries. You cite other certification methods such as: B. the sending of a letter or the certification of objects. In these cases, however, the manipulation of documents would be discovered immediately. Not so in a digital world where documents can be changed without leaving evidence.
“The problem is timestamping the data, not the medium,” they wrote. The first proposed solution was to simply send a document to a timestamp service. The TSS would then keep a copy for safekeeping that could be brought out for comparison if necessary.
What’s the problem with this solution? It relied on a third party who may have got it wrong.
Instead of a third party verifier, they would use a cryptographically secure hash function that would serve as a unique identifier for a piece of content. Instead of sending the entire document to the TSS, the creator sends the unique identifier instead. Upon receipt, the TSS would make a confirmation with a digital signature. By verifying the signature, the client can be sure that the TSS actually processed the request, that the hash was received correctly, and that the correct time was given.
But what happens if the TSS adds an incorrect timestamp to the hash? Haber and Stornetta suggested two solutions: (1) Use parts of previous requests to create new ones, forcing a chronological record. and (2) make the entire system decentralized, transparent and verifiable.
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 has been added, it is checked by nodes on the blockchain in a decentralized system and locked in the public ledger, which cannot be changed.
Original use cases
Haber and Stornetta outlined use cases for this type of time stamping and cited inventions or ideas where authorship would have to be proven. Since the documents are recorded as hash functions, intellectual property and patents are time stamped without revealing the content. They also cite examples where if a company has documents that have been tampered with, the originals can be proven by timestamp. They planned a time stamping that would not only include text documents but also original audio recordings, photos, videos and more.
While Haber and Stornetta eventually started their own company called Surety, which acted as the TSS (and interestingly, published their hashes in the New York Times classifieds ads every week from 1995), the idea never fully popped up. It wasn’t until Bitcoin was founded in 2008 that blockchain technology was finally developed – four years after the Haber and Stornetta patent had expired.
Why do we need timestamps today?
The need to authenticate documents wasn’t just a concern of the 1990s. In a world where so much digital content is produced and distrust of content seems to be growing on the internet, timestamping may be the way to achieve the necessary transparency and accountability.
The idea is simple. A unique hash is generated from the text, title or date of a piece of content and added to the blockchain. Not only does this lock in the point in time when content was created in a publicly distributed ledger, but it also changes the hash if any part of that content is changed. This shows that it has been tampered with or that a new version has been created.
This way, content creators can always prove that they created the piece by calling it on the blockchain. Timestamps can also put an end to plagiarism and copyright disputes, as original works can be found on an immutable blockchain in conjunction with their hash.
Timestamps also increase reader confidence. With added levels of identity, they can know exactly who wrote the content and when, and view an authentication certificate. The more websites use timestamps, the more readers will get used to associating timestamps with transparency, accountability, and authenticity – and rejecting unverifiable content that is not timestamped. Timestamping also has a use case in e-commerce where buyers can see the original terms and agreements and not be cheated by a suddenly updated version that void a warranty.
With a simple implementation, the Internet could become a safe and trustworthy place where writers can be assured that their content will stay safe and where readers know that what they are reading is verifiable. It’s been a long time since the original 1991 paper, but those ideas are needed today.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed here are the sole rights of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
Sebastian van der Lans is chairman 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. His mission is to bring trust back to the internet.