Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Blockchain, what is it?

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  • Russell Brown,

    allowing secure uncorruptible electronic voting

    Hmmm. I'm unclear on this, having heard Nat Torkington explain at our last Orcon IRL event that Blockchain wasn't a starter for electronic voting because it involves a public ledger and is therefore not private.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22763 posts Report Reply

  • Mike Skelton,

    Hi Russell,

    Great intro, I'd actually just finished reading this, which is a great summary of ethereum. Personally, I'm looking forward when the internet and the information on it is literally owned by everyone.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2014 • 3 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    It seems it's Blockchain day! A new Richard MacManus column on the topic on Newsroom, which complement's Alex's quite nicely.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22763 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz, in reply to Russell Brown,

    This article proposes two blockchains, one for voter status (eligible and hasn't voted) another for the actual vote, which is encrypted. (Of course, it doesn't solve the fundamental problem that any form of voting away from a polling place is *inherently* non-private).

    The trouble with everything article I read about blockchain is that the author is clearly fully aroused by the subject, but doesn't know enough about CS and cryptography to write an article that makes sense at a technical level.

    And whenever I have tried to actually use bitcoin over the last few years, my computer has spent many hours grinding away before the funds finally got transferred.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • linger,

    @Russell: Any reason this guest post is in Hard News rather than in Speaker? Mike’s comment seems to suggest that, even though the article title is bylined with its author, some readers may be confused by the fact that your name appears in the column heading. (I'm hoping the answer may be there's a new tech column coming :)

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1901 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to linger,

    (I’m hoping the answer may be there’s a new tech column coming :)

    The answer is that I put it in the wrong place and by the time I realised there were links out and comments posted and it was too late :-)

    But I am thinking about a rearrangement of the site to focus on categories (like Access) rather than personal blogs.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22763 posts Report Reply

  • Neil Graham, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    Voter eligibility is a judgement, so that needs some sort of trusted element to make the call. Once eligibility is sorted it's no different to a bean poll. You get given your digital bean in a ledger column of it's own and you put it into the column of the person you're voting for.

    You can easily enough grant privacy if you don't record who you gave each particular bean to. but you have to trust the bean provider to do that.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 118 posts Report Reply

  • linger, in reply to Neil Graham,

    The problem remains that, with decentralization of locations, there is no way of enforcing privacy (e.g. from other individuals who may be present and able to influence the decision) during the act of voting.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1901 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz, in reply to Neil Graham,

    I see that.

    If we're making a system that lets a voter go along to a polling station, get given a ballot paper, and validates that they're the first to vote, then one could do that with a blockchain. The problem with it (in common with many such solutions) would be the time taken for the change to the blockchain to propagate - you wouldn't know a vote was being duplicated until the voter and the mis-voter had both left the building.

    And I can't see great advantages over a conventional centralised database to solve this problem.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming,

    The US are currently saying that one of the defences that their election system had against the Russian attacks last year was the sheer variety of systems used, so no single attack vector could compromise the system. I'm a geek from way back, but I'm not at all in favour of internet voting in NZ. Even with encryption, there are too many moving parts and potential for malfeasance. Plus we don't need it - we're not big enough that getting the vote counted in an evening is too hard a job.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2930 posts Report Reply

  • Alex S, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    I wrote the article at a general level to explain Blockchain to people who don't have a technical background in Blockchain. Given the word length, hard to go into technical details. Also, the technology is moving so fast that what was considered impossible is now being worked on.
    Bitcoin is comparative slow and clunky, some other cryptocurrencies are lot faster. But saying that I've used Bitcoin a number of times in the past month or so and all the transactions have gone through just fine.

    Auckland • Since Jun 2017 • 2 posts Report Reply

  • Alex S, in reply to Russell Brown,

    A public ledger does not mean that everyone can see what is on that ledger, that's the beauty of Blockchain, although for some blockchains such as Bitcoin you can see what is on the ledger. For a blockchain that does allow truly anonymous transactions, see eg Zcash. Zero knowledge proofs are used to achieve anonymity.

    Auckland • Since Jun 2017 • 2 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to linger,

    no way of enforcing privacy (e.g. from other individuals who may be present and able to influence the decision) during the act of voting.

    Which is what blind citizens face under our current physical voting arrangements where they must rely on someone elese to mark their form. At least they have been trialling other independent options like voting via Blind NZ's existing members' phone information system.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19697 posts Report Reply

  • Mike Skelton, in reply to linger,

    Oh dear, I'm sorry I didn't credit you correctly Alex

    Auckland • Since Mar 2014 • 3 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Mike Skelton,

    Oh dear, I'm sorry I didn't credit you correctly Alex

    As noted above, my fault there.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22763 posts Report Reply

  • Thomas Lumley,

    Money is safer on the Bitcoin blockchain than it is sitting on a bank’s computer system or when it is sent from one bank to another.

    I'm happy to believe that, and it's nice for the banks, but it doesn't translate into risks for depositors: If Westpac is robbed or hacked I don't lose money, but there have been multiple examples of people losing Bitcoin because exchanges were robbed. As I'm sure Alex appreciates as a lawyer, it's the interfaces between blockchains and the rest of the world that are messy.

    That's why I like Matt Levine's take on the DAO hack/fork as a complement to the techie ones. (there was a bug in smart-contract software; someone used it to steal lots of cryptocurrency; more than 51% of the community decided to edit the blockchain and change history so the hack hadn't happened]

    Auckland • Since Feb 2013 • 43 posts Report Reply

  • Neil Graham, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    Yeah the BlockChain aspect doesn't really work for single events. The idea of the chain is to for appended state over time. Strip away the chain aspect and you might as well be using public key signing.

    and re: lingers comment. I hadn't thought of it in those terms. Providing privacy is easy(ish). Enforcing privacy is a tricky kettle of fish to skin indeed.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 118 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to Thomas Lumley,

    it's the interfaces between blockchains and the rest of the world that are messy

    I suppose it's a similar thing with voting. (Sign of the audience: I also zeroed in on those few words before I scrolled down and saw so much talking about it.)

    I can accept how blockchains have potential to solve some, maybe all, of the technical security issues of electronic voting. That's fine and there are plenty of voting-related applications. At the same time, though, I tend to think the much more interesting issues with electronic voting, and the issues which often get ignored by people who campaign for electronic voting, are the social aspects that occur on the other side of the interface -- between real people in the real world.

    If the main benefit is supposed to be to let people vote without going to a public polling station (like voting with your phone or whatever) then how does one deal with the potential for all that voter manipulation that can occur in un-monitored places? (eg. An abusive spouse, or even just general peers, watching you cast your vote with the expectation that you'll vote as they do.) If a person's vote can be verified afterwards, as the linked article seems to boast about, then what's to stop someone else from offering an incentive, or threat, to those who can or cannot prove afterwards that they voted a certain way?

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1139 posts Report Reply

  • Neil Graham, in reply to Thomas Lumley,

    If Westpac is robbed or hacked I don't lose money, but there have been multiple examples of people losing Bitcoin because exchanges were robbed.

    There are multiple instances of exchanges being robbed where people didn't lose bitcoin, If the theft was small enough to be covered they can continue. Same goes for Westpac. If someone stole all of their money then their customers would lose out.

    I think the difference in likelihood of that happening is more down to the scale of the ventures involved. The BitCoin exchanges and MtGox in particular were not really equipped to deal with the huge value markets that things turned into.

    There are bigger players taking things more seriously now but I kind of expect to see some brutal Darwinism over the next ten years.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 118 posts Report Reply

  • Moz,

    Have any of the crypto-currency/blockchain people solved the fundamental problem of power consumption? My understanding is that to a large extent the "51% hack" is measured in megawatts, and just operating a blockchain requires a considerable amount of both hardware and power. Or alternatively, guarding against a hostile takeover requires that the defenders spend more megawatts than the attackers can afford to.

    If you think that climate change is a problem, or that the planet is finite, this is something of a problem. But if not, it's merely a business opportunity.

    FWIW I think the Etherium rewriting of history proves that the people doing it are not serious and don't intend to carry out their claims. The very first time they made a mistake they changed their story from "irrevocable programmatic contract" to "the rules are what we say they are on the day". In other words, if you as a small player find a way to win, they will change the rules to screw you. Small players need to use those systems with that in mind.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1222 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz, in reply to izogi,

    Yep, any kind of non-polling place voting, be it postal ballots or online will suffer from the same problem.

    I'd suspect that one reason the trial of online voting at last years council elections didn't happen is this unfulfillable requirement in the spec:

    1.24 The online voting system must not enable the voter to be in possession of a proof of the content of the vote cast.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Moz,

    If you think that climate change is a problem, or that the planet is finite, this is something of a problem. But if not, it’s merely a business opportunity.

    Yes, I have to wonder whether the human race has created a boon here, or a remarkable new way to chew making electricity to create nothing at all beyond markings of comparative wealth. Once again I'm underwhelmed by what technology has managed to do with all that computing power. When I think how many years I spent working on software to improve resource usage to actually save real time and money, and how much more real resources could have been saved if I'd had the vast computing power of today, I marvel that one of the sexiest technologies of today is dedicating far more of that power into nothing more than managing who has what money, and making sure they can get away with not telling anyone about it.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10646 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    Yes that'd be virtually impossible if you were to consider, for example, a person taking a video of themselves voting on their phone.

    For comparison though I wonder if there does seem to be a shortcoming in existing electoral law around this.

    Last election I recall the publicity around people photographing their completed ballot papers and posting to facebook, and being told they were breaking the law. From memory, though, the law which prevented it seemed to be more obscurely about forging or replicating ballot papers than about producing evidence of who you'd voted for. (I can't recall the reference. Maybe it was 201(1)(a) of the Electoral Act?) IMHO the latter is a much more significant issue in an election than taking a photo which couldn't be passed off as a genuine ballot paper anyway.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1139 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to izogi,

    From memory, though, the law which prevented it seemed to be more obscurely about forging or replicating ballot papers than about producing evidence of who you'd voted for

    It was more about doing it on election day as being an advocacy for the party you voted for, which is verboten on the day. When I was a teen, we worked out a way to use the party logos to spell "MENTAL" and chalked it in appropriate colours on a school pathway leading to a polling place. The administrators were not amused.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2930 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz, in reply to BenWilson,

    Yeah, I think the problem is that the inventors of bitcoin were (I suspect) propertarian wingnuts. As such, they believe in the idea of a currency based on an artificially scarce commodity (cf gold). As expected (and I think I documented this someplace many years ago) this is likely to lead to rampant deflation - which is of course just as much a problem to anyone attempting to use the currency as rampant inflation would be.

    If my business took bitcoin, we'd have to adjust our prices in realtime and then have a highly unstable cashflow (in real money we can pay staff, rent, servers and taxes in) to manage.

    An alternative that simply pegged the coins to a real-world currency and issued them against a bank account full of money would work better and not waste energy - but it would still suffer from excessive transaction times.

    The real problem this is solving isn't technical - having central ledgers operated by trustworthy organisations is a perfectly good solution - but that governments grant an oligopoly to banks which then fail to deliver innovative payment solutions that aren't beset by legacy issues (embossed numbers on credit cards and so on).

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

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