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?”