Circling back to blockchain’s originally intended purpose: Timestamping



What was blockchain technology originally intended for? It is generally assumed that it was created in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto as part of his white paper, creating Bitcoin (BTC). Since Bitcoin will be built on decentralized ledger technology, the blockchain should be created as the basis for the cryptocurrency.

Since 2008, blockchain technology has expanded far beyond the use of cryptocurrency and is now applied in a variety of use cases from healthcare to finance to green technology and more.

But blockchain technology didn’t start with the Satoshi white paper. It was actually invented in 1991 as a way to verify and protect content through a concept called timestamp.

He studied the history of the blockchain

In Satoshi’s famous Bitcoin white paper, he cites another: “How to Time Stamp on a Digital Document”, published by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornita in 1991. The researchers knew that in a completely digital world, certifying documents – when they are created and when they are changed – would become a problem.

In the past, they explained, you could simply turn the pages of a notebook to see dated entries. They cite other means of certification, such as sending an email or getting something notarized, but in these cases, tampering with the documents will be discovered immediately. But this is not the case in the digital world, where documents can be changed without leaving any evidence.

“The problem is the timestamp of the data, not the medium,” they wrote. The first solution they suggested was to send a document to a timestamp service. TSS will then keep a copy for safekeeping, which can be brought for comparison if needed.

What is the problem with this solution? It relied on a third party that might abuse it.

Instead of a third-party validator, they might use an encrypted secure hash function, which would act as the unique identifier for a piece of content. Instead of submitting the entire document to TSS, the creator sends the unique ID instead. Upon receipt, TSS creates a confirmation with a digital signature. By verifying the signature, the customer will ensure that TSS has actually handled the order, that the hash was received correctly, and that the correct time is included.

But what happens if TSS puts a fake timestamp on the hash? Haber and Stournetta proposed two solutions: (1) Using portions of previous requests to create new orders, which would enforce a time record; And (2) making the entire system decentralized, transparent and scrutinized.

For anyone familiar with how blockchain technology works, this is it. Blocks are created by drawing from the hash of the last block and the hash solution of the new block. Once a block is added, it is verified by the nodes on the blockchain in a decentralized system and locked into the general ledger, and cannot be changed.

Original Use Cases

Haber and Stournetta outlined cases of uses for this type of timestamp, citing inventions or ideas in which authorship must be proven. Because documents are recorded as hash functions, they set intellectual property and patent time stamps without disclosing the contents. They also cite examples where, if a company has documents that have been tampered with, they can prove assets through time stamp. They envisioned the timestamp to include not just text documents but original audio recordings, photos, videos, and more.

While Haber and Stornita eventually went on to create their own company called Surety, which operated like TSS (interestingly, it posted its hashes in classifieds ads in the New York Times every week starting in 1995), the idea didn’t quite catch on. Blockchain technology was not fully created until after Bitcoin was created in 2008 – four years after Haber and Stornetta’s patents ran out.

Why do we need a timestamp today?

The need to certify documents was not only a concern in the 1990s. In a world where a lot of digital content is produced and when mistrust of online content appears to be increasing, timestamps may be the only way to achieve the necessary transparency and accountability.

The idea is simple. A unique hash is created from a piece of content text, title, or date, and is added to the blockchain. Not only does this secure when a portion of the content was created in the distributed general ledger but if any portion of that content is changed, the hash changes as well – indicating that it has been tampered with or that a new version has been created.

This allows content creators to prove that they have ever created the piece by calling it on the blockchain. Timestamps can also put an end to plagiarism and copyright disputes, as the original work can be found bound to an immutable blockchain hash.

The timestamp also increases the confidence of the readers. With identity levels added, they can see exactly who wrote the content and when and can view Certificate of Authenticity. The more sites adopt timestamps, the more readers become accustomed to associating timestamps with transparency, accountability, and credibility – and will reject any content that cannot be verified and has no timestamp. The timestamp has an e-commerce use case as well, where buyers can see the original terms and agreements and not be duped with an suddenly updated version that void the warranty.

With a simple application, the Internet can become a safe and reliable place where authors feel confident that their content will remain safe, and where readers know that what they read can be verified. It’s been a long time since the original paper was in 1991, but these ideas are in demand today.

Opinions, ideas and opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Sebastian van der Lance He is Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Trusted Web Foundation as well as Founder and CEO of WordProof. He is the winner of the European Commission Blockchain Competition for Social Good. He is on a mission to restore confidence to the Internet.