A blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions maintained by a network of computers in a way that makes it difficult to hack or alter. The technology offers a secure way for individuals to deal directly with each other, without an intermediary like a government, bank or other third party.

The growing list of records, called blocks, is linked together using cryptography. Each transaction is independently verified by peer-to-peer computer networks, time-stamped and added to a growing chain of data. Once recorded, the data cannot be altered.

While popularized with the growing use of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology has promising applications for legal contracts, property sales, medical records and any other industry that needs to authorize and record a series of actions or transactions.

The original blockchain is the decentralized ledger behind the digital currency bitcoin. The ledger consists of linked batches of transactions known as blocks (hence the term blockchain), and an identical copy is stored on each of the roughly 60,000 computers that make up the bitcoin network. Each change to the ledger is cryptographically signed to prove that the person transferring virtual coins is the actual owner of those coins. But no one can spend their coins twice, because once a transaction is recorded in the ledger, every node in the network will know about it.

The First Blockchain

The original bitcoin software was released to the public in January 2009. It was open source software, meaning anyone could examine the code and reuse it. And many have. At first, blockchain enthusiasts sought to simply improve on bitcoin. Litecoin, another virtual currency based on the bitcoin software, seeks to offer faster transactions.

One of the first projects to repurpose the bitcoin code to use it for more than currency was Namecoin, a system for registering “.bit” domain names. The traditional domain-name management system—the one that helps your computer find our website when you type wired.com—depends on a central database, essentially an address book for the internet. Internet-freedom activists have long worried that this traditional approach makes censorship too easy, because governments can seize a domain name by forcing the company responsible for registering it to change the central database. The US government has done this several times to shut sites accused of violating gambling or intellectual-property laws.\

How blockchain works

Blockchain is a software application that tracks data by storing it in blocks that are then chained together chronologically. Think of a blockchain as a running receipt of transactions or data that are validated and stored and can be viewed later. Blockchain technology can underlie many different applications, such as cryptocurrency, smart contracts, tracking information and almost any other digital process that could require observation.

In the case of cryptocurrency, computers validate the movement of money from person to person over time, leaving a permanent record that can be accessed later, like a long receipt of every transaction ever made. When Bitcoin was officially released in 2009, it brought the advantages of blockchain technology to popular consciousness.

Blockchain technology is often decentralized, meaning that the ability to write to the database is given to a network of computers, as is the case with many cryptocurrencies. This distributed ledger, as it is often called, tracks the data using the redundant power of the networked computers to validate the data. Each computer has access to this public record, and new transactions are added to the receipt or ledger once they’re verified by the networked computers.

Due to this process of validation and the cryptography it uses, blockchain is very secure, creating a record that is almost irreversible. This level of security helped cryptocurrency become an asset that people can buy and sell.

The Future of Blockchain

Despite the blockchain hype—and many experiments—there’s still no “killer app” for the technology beyond speculation and (maybe) payments. Blockchain proponents admit that it could take a while for the technology to catch on. After all, the internet’s foundational technologies were created in the 1960s, but it took decades for the internet to become ubiquitous.

That said, projects like Facebook’s Libra, which is supposed to launch in 2020, indicate the technology is here to stay, but perhaps not in the form its early champions imagined. Libra is designed to enable users to make payments, with a “stablecoin” that will be backed by a number of real-world assets. The idea is to initially support things like cross-border payments and in-app purchases. But it could also be the starting point for building out all sorts of blockchain-based applications. For example, Facebook says it’s interested in exploring things like digital identity tied to the Libra blockchain. At some point, you might use that identity to log in to apps, open bank accounts, apply for jobs, or prove that your emails or social-media messages are really from you.

Those services could also be built on one of the original “public” blockchains, which continue to evolve. Ethereum is currently trying to move from the slow, energy-intensive security scheme it has historically been to a sleeker approach that could make the platform more useful. Bitcoin has the Lightning Network, an experimental technology that enables cheaper payments by cutting down on some of the intensive computations. Even Facebook has promised to begin moving Libra toward a truly decentralized model within the next five years, pending technological breakthroughs.

Advocates are particularly excited about the possibility of building other financial services directly on the blockchain, an area known as “decentralized finance,” or DeFi. Smart contracts could be used to issue peer-to-peer loans, for example, without an overseeing authority, or even handle more complicated applications like insurance. Some believe blockchains can also help automate many tasks now handled by lawyers or other professionals. For example, your will might be stored in a blockchain. Or perhaps your will could be a smart contract that will automatically dole out your money to your heirs. Or maybe blockchains will replace notaries.

Bitcoin proved that it’s possible to build an online service that operates outside the control of any one company or organization. The task for blockchain advocates now is proving that that’s actually a good thing.

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