A common selling point about Blockchain is that it “trustless”. This is a big deal because trust is the foundation of all human relationships and computer security. A truly trustless system would work something like, “first, hand over all of your money to former Nasdaq Chairman-turned-Ponzi-scheme-fraudster Bernie Madoff….” Nobody would voluntarily use a system that they do not trust. The language used to describe Blockchain is important.

The beginning of trust is knowledge. If you don’t even know someone at all, there is no basis for you to trust them. You must first get to know someone and have them provide reasons for you to trust them. The same is true for technology. If you’ve never even heard of a particular technology, you have no reason to trust it. However, after you learn about it and there are reasons for you to trust the technology, you may begin to trust it. With technology, we don’t always need to understand all of the details of how it works, but the more we understand about the technology, the easier it is for us to determine if we have a reason to trust it or not.

When Blockchain advocates refer to a “trustless” technology, although they may not say it or even realize it, they are indicating that they are trusting computer code and the system this computer code creates to provide a reason to trust unknown, anonymous parties across the internet. This trust may be leveraged to perform untraceable transactions between parties that never know the true name of any other party. The way that Blockchain accomplishes this is unique and clever. It is also not without significant challenges and flaws which may be exploited in certain circumstances to undermine the system. This type of system may be utilized for illicit purposes, such as money laundering or facilitating murder-for-hire. Additionally, there are more legitimate, noble purposes to which the technology may be applied. In all cases, the devil is in the details.

In The Blockchain Code, I attempt to take an honest, balanced look at the pros, cons, and engineering trade-offs inherent in the Blockchain approach.