There are many interesting people in Bitcoin, with different views of the world coming from almost every nation on Earth. Part of the problems people encounter in Bitcoin, stem from attempts to agree on the terms used to describe it. I just came across a fascinating example of this posted by Balaji S. Srinivasan, concerning the meaning of “faith” and “truth” . These tweets are a useful foil to explain an interesting and important problem.
Dr. Craig Wright, who is now widely regarded as a scammer, failed to produce a proof that he is Satoshi, the inventor of Bitcoin. He failed to demonstrate he is Satoshi because he could not sign a message with Satoshi’s private key, or send Bitcoin from one of the addresses controlled by private key believed to be known only to Satoshi. Creating this proof is simple for anyone competent in Bitcoin. To demonstrate that he is Satoshi, all Wright had to do is open his Bitcoin client and sign an arbitrary string of text like this
This feature in the reference client will create a signed message that anyone can verify was created using the secret key that only Satoshi knows. It is a powerful form of proof. Anyone anywhere can verify the signature, without special knowledge; all they need is a copy of the Bitcoin software and the signed message, and it can be categorically verified that the signature was made by the person who controls the private key.
Note how I am careful to say what a signature actually means. It does not prove anything other than the person claiming to have the power to sign has that power. In business, this is sufficient to prove that you have control of money, and that is all that matters. A signature, no matter what the medium is that it is made in, cannot prove that you will perform in the future or compel an obligation or anything else. All it does is prove that the person controlling the key made a valid signature.
Exuberant Leaps of Faith
What Balaji Srinivasan and others are doing, is taking this incredibly powerful idea, and running with it, making claims that it can do things that it simply cannot do.
The idea that is spreading like H1N1 Swine Flu, that a cryptographic proof is a universally applicable truth is a myth. What just happened with Craig Wright, is a man who made a claim was unable to verify that claim, nothing more. It is no different to a failure to produce evidence of any kind and the “crypto” aspect of this is not relevant to this matter or the nature of truth.
11 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Faith is only for things not seen as Paul says; it is not for explicit proofs in math. Furthermore, things outside math can be true even if you have never seen them, or formally proved them.
Math has nothing to do with belief and its utility in the Bitcoin and cryptography context does not extend infinitely in all directions. It is only applicable in a narrow, self referential context. Cryptography can only prove things inside its context, not outside of it. This is why a balance showing in a Bitcoin wallet service where you do not have direct control of your private key is nothing but a meaningless number; at best, you may be able to take it as a promise to pay, depending on the contract you agreed to when you opened your account. The number these services display to you is out of context in Bitcoin, because you have no power to personally act on the network by signing a transaction message with a secret key.
Next he goes further and makes an illogical leap when he says:
Just because someone hashes a video and inserts that hash into the Blockchain, it does not mean that what they have hashed is true. And just because a signature is not on the Blockchain, or indeed, that an event was not seen by anyone living, it doesn't mean that any fact is not true by default, and the fact that you can’t find a signature on the Blockchain is not a reason to reject that any event actually happened. This sort of thinking leads inevitably to a world where, “if it is not on the Blockchain, it cannot be true”. More on that later, with a terrifying real life example.
The Royal Mail: Proto Private Blockchain
The Blockchain in the context of storing hashes of documents is nothing more than a dumb time stamping device, like the ones you get at the Post Office, that you can use to prove that you posted something at a certain date. It is the modern equivalent of “Poor Man’s Copyright” where content creators send themselves a copy of their work by special delivery post (which gives a clear date stamp on the envelope), leaving the envelope unopened on its return. Blockchain time stamps are similar to custom postage franks in this function.
The frank in this image was made in the offices of the law firm Biggart Baillie on the 6th day of may 2008, and is loosely analogous to a Blockchain time stamp. Stamps made on the Blockchain are of course far more secure, since they cannot be made by anyone but the private key holder and therefore cannot be forged by a stranger. The authority (or network owner) in this case is the Post Office, who allows Biggart Baillie access to its private franking service and agrees to convey the message in an envelope through its system of connected nodes (Sorting Offices). The cost of the stamp was 50p; stamping things on the Blockchain also has a small cost, to pay for adding messages to the Blockchain. This is done by miners, losely analogous to Sorting Offices that cancel the franks and deliver the mail. Bitcoin miners are of course, independent of each other and compete to sort mail for money.
The image above proves (to a high level of certainty, not absolutely) only that the stamp was made by someone in the offices at that law firm at a certain time. It does not and can not prove that the contents of the letter are true. Cryptographic signatures can verify if the contents of a message have not been tampered with, like an ideal wax seal on an envelope flap, but they can offer no insight in to the context of any envelope’s contents. A bald faced lie can be verified as having a good signature:
that is a cryptographically good signature on a lie. You can use GPG to verify that the signature is good yourself using my GPG public key but what is signed with it is not true.
It is a critical error to believe that because something is “on the Blockchain” that you can certify that it is true. All you can prove about it is that the person with the private key made that transaction at a certain time, and nothing more. Understanding this is very important, because computer illiterates, sold the Snake Oil that, “The Blockchain is the Ultimate Source of Truth”, will believe anything they find on it. This has frightening real world consequences for justice when the vast majority of people are simple minded computer illiterates, and, as promised above, here is a terrifying example of bad stuff happening in real life as a result of this broken thinking.
“The computer said you did it, so you did it”
This is the story of a man who was arrested on the evidence of a computer. It does not take much thinking to transpose this to the Blockchain, and perhaps, this is the problem:
A FYLDE coast student was arrested after posting Christmas cards to his family
Stunned David Atkinson found himself at his local police station under suspicion of stealing the festive greetings he last saw when he put them in a postbox five years ago. Due to fingerprints found on the mail which was stolen then recovered police thought they had their man. However, it transpired the “suspect’s” fingerprints were those of the student who had innocently sent the cards to relatives when he was 15.
Mr Atkinson, now 21, of [the newspaper printed his address, but this was redacted at BLOGDIAL], was arrested because his DNA and fingerprints had been kept on record under controversial Government laws to combat terror.
It was only after Mr Atkinson asked officers to look more deeply into the crime his innocence was proved.
The law student said it has shattered his confidence in the system. He said: “The potential incompetence, laziness, or over enthusiasm of an individual officer means an innocent, law-abiding citizen can never truly have confidence in the giant police database.”
It was the second time Mr Atkinson had been arrested twice for crimes he did not commit. He has now lent his support to a campaign to force a rethink by the Home Office.
The mix-up began last March when Mr Atkinson was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage but, when the real culprit gave himself up to police, he was released without charge.
During his short time with the police, he had his fingerprints and DNA taken as part of the arrest procedure but, under recently passed laws, all details no matter whether the person is innocent or guilty are kept on a national computer.
Mr Atkinson thought nothing of it until he got a call from officers a month later asking him to go along to the station. He said: “I was arrested as soon as I went in. “The officer told me he had a computer report which had automatically matched my fingerprints with those recovered from a number of items of post which had been stolen from a letter box in December 2000.
“As a result of this report alone, and no further investigation, the officer advised me to ‘get the matter out of the way quickly and take a caution now’.
“After refusing to admit a crime I’d not committed, I was bailed while further investigations were made.”
“The recovered letters were in fact my family Christmas cards which had been taken after I had posted them five years ago.”
“This innocent explanation had not even crossed the officer’s mind and, as far as he was concerned, if his computer report said I was guilty then I had to be.”
Mr Atkinson complained to Lancashire Constabulary and eventually received an apology. But, he claims, without the Government’s “menace to our freedom”, he would not have been put through the ordeal. A police spokesman said: “We can confirm that we did receive a complaint in August about a wrongful arrest concerning stolen post. “This was investigated thoroughly under our normal complaints procedure and dealt with locally to the satisfaction of both parties. “Under current legislation, all police forces can retain and record DNA taken for arrestable offences no matter what the eventual outcome of the investigation.”
And there you have it. The police said that as far as they were concerned, if the computer report said he was guilty, then he had to be. Only a very simple minded person cannot see that this is directly transposable to the “Blockchain as truth” meme, and the horrific effect is made even more powerful in the Blockchain mediated world by several orders of magnitude, because the Blockchain is not like a puny, error prone, outsourced national police crime computer or Driving license database; it is a gigantic, global verification system, the most powerful computer network ever created, trusted by everyone on Earth. In that nightmare world, if the Blockchain says you did something, then you did it. Period.
This is nonsense, given the true nature of digital signatures and what they can actually do. It is very much like the thinking of “Blockchain not Bitcoin” types who engage in the “tech” version of magical thinking, attributing abilities to tools that they simply do not have. Cue “The Song”.
Proofs on Paper
And here we come to the point that I started this post with. There is a difference between trust, truth and faith. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Truth in the Bitcoin and math sense is a formal proof that can be openly and repeatedly demonstrated any where at any time, either in a machine or on paper. No one in their right mind, “Trusts” or “has faith in” math; math simply is, and does not require trust. There is no such thing as gradations in truth or a “higher truth”; truth is binary, a statement in math is either TRUE or FALSE.
And yes, you can prove any mathematical statement on paper, even the truth of a Bitcoin signature:
The power of Bitcoin is that it does not require faith or trust. In Bitcoin, you can prove what you are saying is true; the question is, “what is it that you are trying to prove?”
In Bitcoin, you cannot prove anything other than what is on the Blockchain:
1/ That you control a private key
2/ That you wrote an entry on the blockchain
and that is all. There is nothing more to it than that, and incredibly, this is enough to transform the entire world away from fiat currency, central banking, banking as a service to the public and many other services where a trusted verifier-intermediary is required in an information service.
Bitcoin is a very exiting tool, and it has people in a frenzy, trying to come up with new ways to work with it. It’s like the early internet, (or the insane “Internet of Things”) where people were permuting every English language word against “dot com” to come up with the new killer idea. You now see “Blockchain medical records”, “Blockchain identity management”, “Blockchain stock trading”, “Blockchain voting” the infamous “R3CEV” and lots of other ideas that in the majority of cases, will come to nothing.
There is nothing wrong with trying new applications for software, and this work is required both as a means to find new ideas and test them, and as a way to spread the idea of Bitcoin as a tool. What is not correct however, is conflating faith with mathematical truth, or attributing abilities to Bitcoin that it simply does not have.
This sort of bad thinking is what created the BitLicense, and the cancerous, parasitic industry that is trying to feed off of the Bitcoin ecosystem. Perfect Chemotherapy is coming to destroy that cancer. But you know this!
Chocolate mousse cake and a double espresso ↴