The Trapdoors in Blockchain

I recently provided a skeptic's view of blockchain at a conference in Alexandria, VA, hosted by NFAIS. For many in the room apparently, having someone speak skeptically about blockchain -- which is perched in our industry at the apex of the hype cycle currently -- felt like a breath of fresh air, a liberating stance. Such is the nature of skepticism.

The questions after I spoke were also more free-flowing because skepticism has a way of stimulating the adrenal glands in Type A's, and there were plenty of those in the room (I speak with respect and love as one myself).

One question struck me as particularly sage: We didn't see the debacle of Facebook coming. Are we building another debacle of the future with blockchain?

If blockchain is pursued as an "all eggs in one basket" solution some seem to envision, the answer is likely yes. Blockchain claims to be decentralized, but it actually centralizes permissions at the user level. That is, in a fully blockchained future, your blockchain access method could one day unlock everything about you. As long as the hash of blockchain is mathematically robust -- that is, the strength of the lock is greater than the power of the bolt cutter -- everything is fine.

But what about the day when quantum computing rolls into everyday use? What about the day when cryptographic AI comes online? What about today, when we know there are hardware exploits that can make software security irrelevant?

The question about any of of these three scenarios being used to hijack blockchain is not if but when. They will occur. Some AI will learn how to solve the blockchain system in a way we could never imagine, and then game over. The same may occur with quantum computing, where even a brute force approach could work in seconds. Hackers might already be using hardware exploits in ways they intend to reveal when the time is right (i.e., when there is enough to steal to make it worthwhile to spring the trap).

Hype can cause people to turn a blind eye to risk. When Facebook started, the hype (and hope) was that it would connect us in a social fabric that would bring us together and instill harmony. Skeptics and realists studied and observed the actual effects, which have been quite the opposite -- more social isolation, and larger and starker societal divisions.

The risks of blockchain are apparent to anyone paying attention and looking at it skeptically. There is a trapdoor of some kind -- quantum or AI or hardware flaws are leading candidates -- in its future. Better to proceed accordingly and with caution than to fall through the trap.