Putting data beyond ownership

Some blockchain implementations – public, non-permissioned ones in particular – have a really interesting property:

Nobody owns them.

As a sentence, it’s a simple statement. There is no owner.

As I’ve considered it, however, this is far more subtle and powerful than merely having a NULL value in the field where we usually write down the owner’s name. It is not merely that these systems do not have an owner right now, nor that there -is- an owner who has given broad permissions around the use and re-sharing of the data.

Rather, these systems are by design non-ownable. It might be accurate to describe them as “self sovereign,” though in a limited sort of way.

The foundational example of a blockchain system, BitCoin, was designed to solve an accounting problem in a low trust environment: The designers wanted to keep a ledger of transactions among a group of parties who did not trust each other to keep the books. They also didn’t trust any particular third party, whether it was a bank or a nation state.

The solution to that problem was to create an escrow service. In effect, the BitCoin network created the third party that they needed. That third party was sufficiently disinterested and transparent that the participants were comfortable using it to keep the books.

People are making increasingly clever use of this property of BitCoin and other public chains. It serves as a highly trustworthy and disinterested repository of data. It is useful precisely because there is no chance of a conflict of interest or an external force changing the system. While we do worry about it failing and becoming unviable, we do not worry about the owner being bought by a competitor or compelled by a nation state.

There is no owner to compel. I keep coming back to how -odd- that is.

Note that this is distinct from the question of whether the data itself is public, private, or bound by one license another. Uploading copyrighted material to a blockchain service does not invalidate the copyright. The copyright is still valid. Instead, it means that the party that received the data isn’t a person or a company.

This new model opens up possibilities for system designers and data strategists. Many of the challenges in our health care system center on the obligations, risks, and potential rewards of being the organization who owns the systems that hold the data.

Under current law, the data in a person’s medical records belongs to that person. However, the electronic medical record systems that hospitals use to record the data belong to the hospital. Hospitals exist in a web of frequently conflicting pressures, risks, and incentives. Anybody who has navigated the American health care system knows the awful challenges involved in accessing and sharing data that we supposedly “own.”

To be clear, using the BitCoin network to directly store electronic medical records is a terrible, half-baked, hopelessly naive idea. BitCoin is built on the wrong set of incentives for health care. It operates at the wrong tempo. It also has structural and social baggage that make it a bad choice for this particular application.

More fundamentally, data that should remain private over the long term should not go on public chains, even encrypted. Encryption has a shelf life. The computers of the future will be powerful enough to break the encryptions of today.

With that said, I do think that there is a great opportunity to change the rules of the game by considering which slices of information hospitals and insurance companies and research organizations hold closely because they can’t trust each other. Then we should ask: “What if we let ‘nobody’ hold some of that information, instead of any of us?”

3 thoughts on “Putting data beyond ownership”

  • Very interesting Chris. I think it is good for there to be an owner of the “walled garden” of a crypto blockchain for the sake of transparency. There needs to be a throat to cut, strangle etc, when things go wrong. I really don’t like Bitcoin from a currency perspective. It just seems like an investment for people who are anti-government, libertarian types. Snowdenaires. The things that appeal to them about the privacy of bitcoin are the reasons I don’t like it. But I think it is interesting to think about when it becomes ‘owned’ by a government some of those problems go away. Maybe it effectively deters counterfeits. Maybe it protects the money supply from getting out of control. In this way I see there being a lot of benefits for the technologies behind bitcoin. But I see most of the value when it is applied in the transparently owned space; rather than the public (and deniable) ether. There is really no accountability/recovery for potential “failures” of the blockchain in the public space.

    • Fair points, and I love the term “Snowdenaire.”

      My faith in the trustworthiness and accountability of our institutions – from local to national government – has taken a beating lately.

      There may be a regulatory middle ground, in which the government provides well defined, auditable, and enforceable standards for autonomous and distributed services to support currency, health care, and other socially important topics.

  • I am certainly no advocate for the politicians, but I am perhaps a bit sensitive to the idea that the dollar is under ‘assault’ as a currency and that I perceive Bitcoin to almost be a part of that. What makes Bitcoin weak I think the dollar solves and vice versa. But Bitcoin by its nature can’t provide the guarantee of accountability a dollar can from a redemption perspective. A ‘blockchain dollar’ though would have all the benefits of both Bitcoin and the dollar and Bitcoin can’t replicate that because of its clandestine nature.

    The transparency you are describing as enforced by regulation is a great idea I think, but the element of privacy is what is appealing to many people seeking to implement blockchain. I wonder how this would affect the views of many people seeking to implement such technologies regarding their willingness to share information with the government when some kind of encryption is part of their business model. I do think regulation is the solution to a lot of this though, including perhaps heavy fines and taxes for firms / crypto products that don’t provide consumer transparency.

    I expect the government to fail at creating innovative products, so that isn’t my point about all blockchain; I think it has the most value in the consumer economy creating products. But as above, I am kind of fixated on the idea of currency war right now which may make me critical of clandestine applications of the technology.

    (As a fun exercise, do compare the content of stories which discuss bitcoin at different media sites and you can learn a lot about the editorial perspective of those sites. Looking at ‘voice of America’ for example, you can see it is associated with crime; looking at RT you see it is associated with ‘astronomical returns’. )

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