When you buy or sell a home, at some point in the process, you’ve got to check the property against a central database, usually at the town clerk’s office. And when you buy or sell something with the digital currency bitcoin, that bitcoin has to be registered somewhere so it can’t be spent twice. That registry, which functions kind of like a digital town clerk’s office, is called the block chain. Right now the state of Vermont is paving the way for entrepreneurs and governments to use the block chain for other purposes. David Brooks, a reporter at The Concord Monitor and writer at Granite Geek.org, recently spoke about block chain with NHPR's Peter Biello.
David, what other uses of block chain are we talking about here?
That’s the whole idea: there aren't a whole lot of other purposes yet, but people are looking at it. For example, the Bank of England and some other very large financial institutions are looking at whether they can use the block chain to make it easier and faster to move money around. The World Bank is looking at the block chain to see if they can improve governance in places like Honduras.
But basically, the block chain can be thought of as—well, I like your analogy as an electronic town clerk. An electronic filing cabinet you often hear. It’s a digital document, and we all know digital documents are really easy to change. They’re easy to move around, whereas when I file something with a town clerk, there’s a piece of paper sitting in the cabinet and it’s very hard to get in there and alter it. If you have a digital file online somewhere, people can mess with it all the time.
So what the block chain does, it makes it harder to mess with it, not by having a really secret copy hidden away, but by making lots of copies and distributing them automatically to thousands or millions of people, depending on which block chain you’re talking about—automatically, every ten seconds in the case of bitcoin. So if I register my car with block chain or if I spend a bitcoin with block chain, there’s millions of copies out there, so if I try to change it and pretend I didn’t do it, pretend I did something else, there’s all those other copies out there that could tell people otherwise. And that’s the secret of block chain and the way it could be used, to guard against fraud or changes.
You use an example of art and how block chain could keep track of a single piece of art by an artist like Picasso.
This was an example that Oliver Goodenough, director of the Center for Legal Innovation at the Vermont Law School, gave me. I talked to him because he’s one of the people involved with the very interesting program that Vermont state legislators launched. They’ve got groups looking into whether block chain can be used in state government in any way to make things cheaper and easier and cooler, I suppose. Professor Goodenough gave the example of a Picasso print. The joke was, Picasso made 100 of these prints and there are 500 on the market, so how do you know which one is real? What usually happens is there’s a piece of paper attached that says, “Yes, Picasso made this print,” or something like that. In theory, what could happen is Picasso could establish a block chain document with each print that says, “Yes, this is one of mine,” and that block chain document could not be altered. That’s one of the possibilities and that’s the strength of the block chain, it makes an unalterable digital document so it’s easy to manipulate, easy to send to Japan or wherever you want to go, easy for people to look at on their phone, and yet it cannot be messed with the way so many digital things can. That’s the sort of thing Vermont as a state is actually looking into.
How far along is Vermont?
They just started. The legislature passed—there’s a law that talks about ways to do digital innovation, it was passed in early summer. So they’re just looking into it.
Not very far along, then.
Not very far along, but further along than anybody else. Frankly, the reason I wrote about it was because it was so exciting that state government was looking into this at all—the possibility of using block chain to do property transfers or register your car. It would be an entirely new way to do it, perhaps a cheaper way to do it, a more efficient way—you could do it online more easily. From Vermont’s point of view, as Prof. Goodenough said, frankly, it makes Vermont look cool if they do this. You’re always trying to lure tech companies, particularly a state like Vermont would like to lure some more. If you’re the state that knows to use block chain in your own state government, that would give you a panache.
So right now it’s not possible to use block chain record to prove ownership of anything in court?
No. It might be possible technically, but I don’t think anyone’s actually set it up. I don’t know that it’d be too hard to, but it’s not possible legally, and that’s really the main thing that Vermont is looking into right now. Can you establish a legal structure under which courts, juries would accept a block chain document as having as much validity as, you know, the piece of paper signed that’s been at the town clerk’s office. So that is really what they’re doing now, they’re trying to establish legal underpinnings that can be used to build a block chain as, frankly, part of the 21st century government and business.
So what would you want to see as a block chain registry? Anything in your life, David, that you think should be easily accessible through a block chain?
You know, I could use it to show that I actually wrote all the stuff named David Brooks, and not that guy down at the New York Times.
You want to put the David Brooks of New Hampshire stamp on this?