Is Blockchain Really the Future of Democracy?

11/13/2017 03:24 pm ET
Some think blockchain could be the key to securing democracy around the world.
Pixabay
Some think blockchain could be the key to securing democracy around the world.

Blockchain has been touted as everything from the future of finance to the cure to poverty and the only way to secure land registries. Now it is being pushed as the future of the very democratic process, but can it really work this way?

Optimistic sources claim that we can all switch to blockchain voting. They say it is impregnable, secure, anonymous and instant. They paint a Utopian vision of people voting on smartphones on route to work and having their say in daily government decisions and on land registry matters.

The world is queuing up to place its faith in a system that has become synonymous with murky deals and shady, hidden finance and individuals who want to operate in the shadows.

Bitcoin has been mired in controversy since it launched in 2009. It has been connected to the Dark Web, Silkroad and all manner of illegal activity. China banned all cryptocurrency exchanges and cryptocurrencies are on shaky legal ground pretty much everywhere.

How can this system suddenly be squeaky clean and the blueprint for democracy’s future?

I recently received an e-mail from an advisor to Vladimir Smerkis, the founder of The Token Fund and Tokenbox.io, and a former vice president of international development at Mail.Ru.

She said Smerkis is helping to drag cryptocurrencies into the light and is determined to create a regulated environment for cryptocurrencies, adding that he wanted to speak with me about “how blockchain has the power to forge the democratic future that we have all dreamed of, but fallen short of achieving.”

Intrigued, I took Smerkis up on his offer. I found his comments engaging and worthy of further consideration.

Q. How can blockchain change the voting process?

We should not be voting in this day and age by placing a mark on a piece of paper. Today, we have all the right technology at our disposal. We just need to learn how to trust it. We have the means to tie each and every electronic vote to an individual. We can also keep it anonymous and ensure that it is secure and tamperproof. So why aren’t we doing it? That’s the question.

Trust is the biggest problem facing the widespread adoption of blockchain. Thanks to peer-to-peer networking, there’s no central stash of data hackers can attack. Each block in the chain has to follow another and it must all be verified by multiple peers in the process of mining.

Q. If the system is totally secure, how has it been hacked by thieves who stole $32 million in one night?

Nothing is totally secure and blockchain has vulnerabilities like any other system. But the basic premise, the fact there is no central store of data, means that it takes phenomenal resources to break into the ledger.

It can be done, but as a basic principle this is a much more secure system. Can we do anything to improve the security? Of course, there is always room for improvement, but it’s a much more secure platform.

Currently, we have vast silos of data protected by an encryption lock in banks, government buildings and more. Data centers are cropping up all the time, and they are all vulnerable. We have artificial intelligence that can attack and crack encryption all day long, so we have to come up with a better system. Blockchain is that system.

Q. Why is Russia emerging as a world leader in blockchain. Is this a cause for concern?

President Vladimir Putin is determined to make Russia a leader in the technology space and he sees the potential of blockchain. He has seen what Estonia has achieved – without the hindrance of legacy systems – in creating a digital wallet for each and every citizen that makes voting and simple residential matters so much easier.

The technology behind blockchain is completely clean, and governments want to use it because of that very transparency. A record has to be verified, multiple times, so you can rely on it. That can work in Russia, or even a small African nation with a history of civil war.

Government records and computers can be tampered with. Communities have been wiped out with the stroke of a pen more than once. With blockchain, if it says a person owns a piece of land, then they own it. When it says they voted, they voted.

Every system can be corrupted, but blockchain is pure and can only be an improvement. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Russia, Estonia or the United States.

Q. True, but is blockchain voting really any different, or is it just an electronic version of placing a mark on a piece of paper?

It really will be a case that you can vote on your phone anonymously, and yet with a vote clearly attached to your name on the ledger. There are levels of security and each peer involved in the “transaction” won’t have sufficient information to check your vote.

So even in the darkest regimes, people can feel free to vote as they see fit and the voting process will be transparent. The system is open to anybody on the network, and I don’t need to tell you that entire votes have been corrupted in the past. Votes just disappear. That can’t happen here.

Q. OK, but America is not a dictatorship. Do we really need this in the United States and other Western countries?

Voter apathy is turning into a real problem, even in the first world. The turnout for the election was terrible and just 55.7 percent of the public voted.

That’s how you end up with someone like Donald Trump in charge of the world’s most powerful country. I really couldn’t give you a clearer example of why we need smartphone-based voting.

But it goes beyond that. Right now, we simply elect people to make decisions on our behalf and we don’t need to do that. We can have a say on every major decision, through the blockchain, and force the government to actually do what the majority of people want.

That is true democracy, on a daily basis, which we just don’t have right now. To me, it sounds like a better world with real accountability and every citizen getting a sense of ownership.

Blockchain can change the entire political process and that’s already happening in countries like Iceland, Denmark and Estonia.

Now, it’s time for the rest of the world to catch up.

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