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Block Chain technology

The terminology of this new field is still evolving, with many using the terms block chain (or blockchain), distributed ledger and shared ledger interchangeably. Formal definitions are unlikely to satisfy all parties —

  1. A block chain is a type of database that takes a number of records and puts them in a block (rather like collating them on to a single sheet of paper). Each block is then ‘chained’ to the next block, using a cryptographic signature. This allows block chains to be used like a ledger, which can be shared and corroborated by anyone with the appropriate permissions.

There are many ways to corroborate the accuracy of a ledger, but they are broadly known as consensus (the term ‘mining’ is used for a variant of this process in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin) — see below.

If participants in that process are preselected, the ledger is permissioned. If the process is open to everyone, the ledger is unpermissioned — see below.

The real novelty of block chain technology is that it is more than just a database — it can also set rules about a transaction (business logic) that are tied to the transaction itself. This contrasts with conventional databases, in which rules are often set at the entire database level, or in the application, but not in the transaction.

 

  1. Unpermissioned ledgers such as Bitcoin have no single owner — indeed, they cannot be owned. The purpose of an unpermissioned ledger is to allow anyone to contribute data to the ledger and for everyone in possession of the ledger to have identical copies. This creates censorship resistance, which means that no actor can prevent a transaction from being added to the ledger. Participants maintain the integrity of the ledger by reaching a consensus about its state.

Unpermissioned ledgers can be used as a global record that cannot be edited: for declaring a last will and testament, for example, or assigning property ownership. But they also pose a challenge to institutional power structures and existing industries, and this may warrant a policy response.

 

    1. Permissioned ledgers may have one or many owners. When a new record is added, the ledger’s integrity is checked by a limited consensus process. This is carried out by trusted actors — government departments or banks, for example — which makes maintaining a shared record much simpler that the consensus process used by unpermissioned ledgers. Permissioned block chains provide highly-verifiable data sets because the consensus process creates a digital signature, which can be seen by all parties. Requiring many government departments to validate a record could give a high degree of confidence in the record’s security, for example, in contrast to the current situation where departments often have to share data using pieces of paper. A permissioned ledger is usually faster than an unpermissioned ledger.

 

  1. Distributed ledgers are a type of database that is spread across multiple sites, countries or institutions, and is typically public. Records are stored one after the other in a continuous ledger, rather than sorted into blocks, but they can only be added when the participants reach a quorum.

    A distributed ledger requires greater trust in the validators or operators of the ledger. For example, the global financial transactions system Ripple selects a list of validators (known as Unique Node Validators) from up to 200 known, unknown or partially known validators who are trusted not to collude in defrauding the actors in a transaction. This process provides a digital signature that is considered less censorship resistant than Bitcoin’s, but is significantly faster.

    1. A shared ledger is a term coined by Richard Brown, formerly of IBM and now Chief Technology Officer of the Distributed Ledger Group, which typically refers to any database and application that is shared by an industry or private consortium, or that is open to the public. It is the most generic and catch-all term for this group of technologies.

    A shared ledger may use a distributed ledger or block chain as its underlying database, but will often layer on permissions for different types of users. As such, ‘shared ledger’ represents a spectrum of possible ledger or database designs that are permissioned at some level. An industry’s shared ledger may have a limited number of fixed validators who are trusted to maintain the ledger, which can offer significant benefits.

    1. Smart contracts are contracts whose terms are recorded in a computer language instead of legal language. Smart contracts can be automatically executed by a computing system, such as a suitable distributed ledger system. The potential benefits of smart contracts include low contracting, enforcement, and compliance costs; consequently it becomes economically viable to form contracts over numerous low-value transactions. The potential risks include a reliance on the computing system that executes the contract. At this stage, the risks and benefits are largely theoretical because the technology of smart contracts is still in its infancy, and some time away from widespread deployment.

 

 

“Distributed ledgers have the potential to be radically disruptive. Their processing capability is real time, near tamper-proof and increasingly low-cost. They can be applied to a wide range of industries and services, such as financial services, real estate, healthcare and identity management. They can underpin other software-and hardware-based innovations such as smart contracts and the Internet of Things.”

 

“their distributed consensual nature they may be perceived as threatening the role of trusted intermediaries in positions of control within traditionally hierarchical organisations such as banks and government departments.

 

DLT

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