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Blockchain Applied: Impact on the Information Profession

July 8, 2018

Libraries have always been ahead of the curve in adopting emerging technologies, but that’s not to say that they leap before they look. It’s time to meet the new tech on the block – the Blockchain.

On Thursday, June 7, the San José State University (SJSU) School of Information hosted an online conference to address the feasibility, benefits, and concerns of adopting Blockchain technology in a library setting.

Explaining Blockchain

Blockchain technology is most often described as a decentralized, digital public ledger, which is an accurate, if not somewhat oversimplified explanation. The technology was first developed in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto, the founder of the popular cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. Every transaction made through the Blockchain is given a unique identifier and recorded individually by multiple computers on a shared network, and constantly verified by each one. The resulting system turns the network of computers into witnesses to every transaction, a self-monitoring crowd of observers who take permanent notes and are very, very good at detecting falsities.

“Before, it was difficult to complete information transfers when the people involved didn’t trust each other,” noted Jason Griffey, Keynote Speaker for the conference. Griffey, a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, went on to state that initial distrust online can increase, “especially when we’re talking about exchanging an object of value. You don’t want someone to ‘cook the books’ so to say, and spend the same money twice… But now, with the Blockchain, what you have is a system that is incredibly resistant to manipulation.”

Another feature the Blockchain has in its corner is something called a Smart Contract. By using “If-Then” statements based on previously agreed upon conditions, the Blockchain can complete a transaction automatically if and/or when those conditions are met.

So the success of the Blockchain technology in finance and cryptocurrency has already been proven – but what about in libraries?

Digital identity, Provenance, and Permanent Metadata

Since both user identities and transactions are unalterable and trackable in the Blockchain, Griffey described the possibility of a verifiable digital identity, which could replace login credentials for every separate application, and make real the concept of a ‘Universal Library Card’. “So someone can have their ID and location and can choose to share that to any library they walked into in order to gain access…Technically, it would be possible to build a library system not owned by one organization.”

“There’s also the potential for bibliographic metadata,” Griffey continued. “For a decentralized OCLC structure of information that is the equivalent to a database, and which you could build a decentralized metadata chain that was world writable – any individual that wanted to interact with bibliographic metadata could catalogue from it and chose their favorite source.”

Another application to the library and information management world is the recording of Provenance, and, in U.S, the First Sale rights. “There is the potential for the automated digital provenance system in which past files move through the world, and through the internet, and in the movement of those files could be recorded to prove the provenance,” Griffey described.

Not a “Belief System” – Legal Concerns in the Blockchain

Paradoxically, it is the absolute-ness of the technology that has Dan Blackaby, Head of Technologies Initiatives at Cornell University Law Library, concerned about how Blockchain is going to change policy makers and legal enforcement.

“For a lawyer,” Blackaby explained, “when it comes to contractual actions and engagement, autonomy is very important because there are elements of a contact that a Smart contract just doesn’t cover – there has to be two parties, a meeting of the minds…there are a number of things that go into a contract other than just the executables.”

While other concerns revolved around who could be held accountable in such a decentralized system.

Online gambling, Blackaby argues, is one financial transaction that may not suit the technology. “If you put that into a Blockchain, not only would you need to have the information of who won, who lost, who gets the money and how it was distributed, but also establishing where this even took place is almost impossible – because where is the Blockchain?

Take CryptoKitties as another example, the unique, collectable digital works of cat art taking the Blockchain by storm. Thanks to the unique and randomly generated identifier given to every object in the Blockchain, each CryptoKitty is “born” with its own genetic code, which predetermines the traits seen in the artwork, and can be passed on through any digital offspring. However, would the resulting artwork fall under copyright law? How many combinations would it take to create a perfect “CryptoKitty copycat”? Blackaby wants to know what happens “if the Blockchain itself is violating copyright – if that art [CryptoKitties] itself violates copyright, who gets the violation?

Unfortunately, there are no answers yet, only more questions – and more ‘what ifs”.

“The risk that you run with Blockchain is that it may become what the Financial Times put as a ‘belief system’,” Blackaby concluded. “We don’t have enough answers yet for it to be that stable. The law will adjust to it though – It has for almost all other element of technology in the past.

“It may be slow, but it will catch up.”

Looking to the Future

Legal implications aside, Tania San Nicolas-Rocca, Assistant Professor at the SJSU School of Information, reiterated in her presentation “Security in Libraries: A Case for Blockchain Technology” the possibilities of using such a secure system in the library world. “In order to consider how Blockchain can be used within libraries, we also have to consider the three most crucial components of security: confidentiality, integrity and availability”.

These three components can be surmised as:

  1. “Is the info secure?”;
  2. “Is it trustworthy?” and
  3. “Is it available when users need it?”

“Data in the Blockchain is distributed around many computers that are interlocked,” stated San Nicolas-Rocca. She went on to say that, “in order for hacking efforts to be successful, at least 51% of the computers would have to be hacked. If one computer’s Blockchain is updated or breached, the system would block it. There is no single point of failure or vulnerability within Blockchain.”

Being promised that there are no weakest links in the Blockchain is indeed compelling motivation for blind trust – trust with the safeguarding of objects of value, and trust in the security of our information. And while the possible applications are exciting, Tania San Nicolas-Rocca concluded that we must pick and choose what the Blockchain is applied to with great care. “Regardless of the model,” she stated. “Blockchain must bring value to the application that it is being applied to.”

Page Taylor is a graduate of the Library and Information Technician program at Algonquin College in Ottawa. She briefly dabbled in journalism and public relations internships before finding a niche in reference services and information management.

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One response to Blockchain Applied: Impact on the Information Profession

  1. Cailin Whitelock says:

    Great article Page, really interesting!

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