Since its inception in 2009, Bitcoin—a digital currency secured by encryption—has attracted attention, interest, and controversy. Less attention (at least until recently) has been paid to other applications of the underlying technology, “blockchain,” that makes Bitcoin possible. And while the anonymity associated with Bitcoin is, if anything, often associated with illicit transactions in the “dark web,” other applications of the blockchain technology might be used to enhance transparency and promote integrity. Some of the early proposals along these lines are indeed encouraging; at the same time, blockchain is not a technological panacea, and recognizing its limitations can identify areas that may require particular attention in anticorruption efforts.
First, a bit more (non-technical) information on the technology. Blockchain functions as an online, public digital ledger. In the Bitcoin context, the technology makes it possible to track and record Bitcoin transactions in the ledger and distribute that information in real-time to all computers connected to the Bitcoin network. Because of this distribution, the ledger is updated independent of any central authority. Moreover, because each chronological “block” in the chain contains both unique information about each transaction and also a unique identifier of the previous block, which is then distributed to all computers on the network, it is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to tamper with or alter the transaction records.
While the blockchain technology made Bitcoin possible, its public and tamper-proof data storage function could assist with efforts to promote transparency and fight corruption. For example, in the context of land reform, Austin-based start-up Factom has reached an agreement with the Honduran government to transfer its land registry onto a blockchain-enforced digital database. The objective is to create a reliable land title-keeping system in a country where, as USAID notes, “only 14% of Hondurans legally occupy properties and, of the properties held legally, only 30% are registered.” In addition to a lack of registration, government officials currently can alter titles to those properties that are registered, allocating properties to themselves (or to others in exchange for bribes). Moreover, citizens often lack access to records, which may provide conflicting information, and are thus unable to defend themselves against infringement of property, use, or mineral rights. By recording land title in an immutable public registry (relying, according to reports, on the Bitcoin blockchain’s data-embedding function), the partnership between Factom and the Honduran government seeks to secure for the public a clear, trustworthy record of ownership in order to improve protection of land rights, and to incentivize registration.
This seems like a worthwhile initiative, and one that transparency and anticorruption advocates should watch closely. At the same time, it’s worth noting several reasons we should be careful not to lose sight of important corruption challenges amidst the excitement surrounding the digitized ledger: Continue reading