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Blockchain: The Blockchain Was Born 20 Years Before Bitcoin.

Blockchain:

Scientist Scott Stornetta gave a presentation this Saturday, May 30, 2020, curated by the Government Blockchain Association Of UAE. The birth of the blockchain is among the many topics he discussed. Stornetta and his colleague, cryptographer Stuart Haber’s three papers were referenced in Satoshi Nakamoto’s 2009 bitcoin whitepaper. Hence, there was speculation that Stornetta is Satoshi Nakomoto. For what it is worth, he denied being Nakamoto in Japanese, which he speaks.

Blockchain: A simple illustration from S. Nakamoto's bitcoin paper

From the section: time stamp server from the bitcoin paper

Satoshi Nakomoto

In late 80s, Stornetta joined the legendary Bell labs, he had come from the West Coast; where he had been working at Xerox
XRX
, another hotbed of innovation. When he came to Bell labs, Stornetta was already working on an open problem. Stornetta had been witness to a scandal, which was the publication of a remarkable result by a prominent researcher in biology; this remarkable result was the result of manipulation. This was proven by the examination of some lab notebooks, the original results were altered using a different ink than the one used in the rest of the notebooks. Stornetta heard this, he grew concerned about the future of record keeping, since his work at Xerox told him that in the future, all records would be digital. He also knew that digital records were trivially alterable after the fact.

The problem of immutability of digital records became a mission. Stornetta was trained as a theoretical physicist. He did not have direct expertise in digital documents or cryptography, but he continued to pursue his interest.

Xerox and Bell labs encouraged work on open projects. You could work on anything as long you stated the problem. No manager directed your work, results did not have to be on a timeline. The advantage of an environment like that is that it throws together brilliant people from multiple disciplines, sparking open collaboration. Many storied and world changing products were born from these two cauldrons of innovation.

In Bell Labs, Stornetta met Haber, a cryptographer. Stornetta convinced Haber that the immutability of digital records was a problem worth working on. Their initial solution was based on hash functions and digital certificates. The document would be reduced to a hash. A hash is a well-understood and widely used concept in cryptography. A message digest or hash is a fixed length result (usually just a few bytes long), cryptographically obtained from documents of different lengths. The hash changes, even when one bit of the original document changes. This ties the hash irrevocably to the document. The client who wished to timestamp the document sends a hash rather than the document to a Time Stamping Service (TSS). The TSS would then timestamp the document’s hash and certify it. A further extension is in the first paper they published, where a chain of documents to introduce a time sequence is in the section entitled “linking”. This would be a chain linking the documents together, each document’s certificate would contain a link to the previous document in the sequence.

The TSS is a single witness to the timestamp, it is open to subversion, either by corruption or by fraud. They despaired of finding a solution for the removal of trust on a single witness TSS. Haber suggested that they start writing a paper addressing their solution, without a solution to this problem. As they were writing the paper, they then lit upon a way to distribute the trust, by creating multiple certifiers of a timestamp. The users themselves would act as each others certifier. This is in the section titled distributed trust. The creation of decentralized trust was on its way.

Hash functions and signatures do not address practical considerations by themselves. In the paper, Haber & Stornetta talked about two use cases. In one the actual timestamp of the document matters, in another the integrity and the tamper resistance of the original document matters. The first use case could be protection of digital lab notebook to preserve and authenticate primacy of discovery, in patents and the like. The second would be a way to hash digital documents that any enterprise is required to record, so that a later presentation would reveal tampering, if it did happen.

The trusted witness problem was practically solved by creating a witness to a weekly hash that cannot be subverted, turning the problem on its head, by enlisting the whole world to be a witness, in the form of a classified ad in the New York Times
NYT
, once a week, that contains the hash of the entries in the time stamp registry for a week. They also introduced the Merkle Tree as a cryptographic accumulator, which is a way of capturing many document hashes and collections of hashes into a single root hash. Immutable due to its advertisement in the classified section of the Sunday New York Times, which enlisted the whole world as an audience. This was introduced in AbsoluteProof a solution by Surety.com, which is an active enterprise, even today. Surety.com was started by Stornetta and Haber, they are no longer involved.

The first solution to the problem of creating an immutable and irrefutable linked timestamp of a series of digital documents, which can be called a blockchain, is already there in Stornetta and Haber’s work, about twenty years before Bitcoin. This paper lay in wait for the genius of Satoshi Nakomoto to take it to new heights, years later. As Stornetta notes in his presentation, Bitcoin is not just a work of engineering, it is also a work of art; because of the creation of an emergent crypto-economic incentive using proof of work. The dream of a unimpeachable universal digital witness for the transfer of value started the whole blockchain revolution.

Stornetta says that the use case of digital document timestamping and the integrity of regulated corporate documents can be addressed in a more frictionless way, by a proper implementation on the blockchain. As befits the modern era, he is an advisor to a VC firm investing in blockchain based compan

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