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A blog about Blockchain technology

Blockchain in Enterprise Content Management

Picture a document that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Then imagine that this network is designed to regularly update this document, and you have a basic understanding of the blockchain. Information held on a blockchain exists as a shared, and continually reconciled, database. The blockchain database isn’t stored in any single location, no centralized version of this information exists for a hacker to corrupt. Hosted by potentially millions of computers simultaneously, data stored in a blockchain network is accessible to anyone on the internet.

 

Document Collaboration

The traditional way of sharing documents with collaboration is to send a Word document to another recipient, and ask them to make revisions to it. The problem with that scenario is that you need to wait until receiving a return copy before you can see or make other changes because you are locked out of editing it until the other person is done with it. That’s how databases work today. Two owners can’t be messing with the same record at once. That’s how banks maintain money balances and transfers; they briefly lock access (or decrease the balance) while they make a transfer, then update the other side, then re-open access (or update again).

With documents on a blockchain network, both parties have access to a copy of the same document at the same time, and the single version of that document is always visible to both of them. It is like a shared ledger, but it is a shared document. The distributed part comes into play when sharing involves a number of people. Imagine the number of legal documents that should be used that way. Instead of passing them to each other, losing track of versions, and not being in sync with the other version, why can’t al* business documents become shared instead of transferred back and forth? So many types of legal contracts would be ideal for that kind of workflow.

 

Blockchaining Documents

Blockchain technology is like the internet in that it has a built-in robustness. By storing blocks of information that are identical across its network, a blockchain node:

  • Cannot be controlled by any single entity.
  • Has no single point of failure.
  • Provides built-in security by offering a cryptographically secure data structure.

The blockchain network lives in a state of consensus, one that automatically checks in with itself every ten minutes (this applies to Bitcoin blockchain). A kind of self-auditing ecosystem of a digital value, the network reconciles every transaction that happens in ten-minute intervals. Each group of these transactions is referred to as a “block”. Two important properties result from this:

 

  • Transparency data is embedded within the network as a whole, by definition it is public.
  • It cannot be corrupted altering any unit of information on the blockchain would mean using a huge amount of computing power to override the entire network.

In theory, this could be possible. In practice, it’s unlikely to happen. Taking control of the system to capture Bitcoins, for instance, would also have the effect of destroying their value.

 

Blockchain solves the problem of manipulation. When I speak about it in the West, people say they trust Google, Facebook, or their banks. But the rest of the world doesn’t trust organizations and corporations that much — I mean Africa, India, the Eastern Europe, or Russia. It’s not about the places where people are really rich. Blockchain’s opportunities are the highest in the countries that haven’t reached that level yet.

Vitalik Buterin, inventor of Ethereum

 

Let’s explore now some of the benefits of distributing documents and any digital assets on blockchain. These benefits can be identified as:

  • Distributed file storage
  • Protection of Intellectual Property
  • Proof of Authenticity and Existence
  • Independently Verifiable Audit Trail
  • Privacy and Confidentiality

 

Distributed File Storage

Decentralizing file storage on the internet brings clear benefits. Distributing data throughout the network protects files from getting hacked or lost.

Inter Planetary File System (IPFS - https://ipfs.io/) makes it easy to conceptualize how a distributed web might operate. Similar to the way BitTorrent moves data around the internet, IPFS gets rid of the need for centralized client-server relationships (i.e., the current web). An internet made up of completely decentralized websites has the potential to speed up file transfer and streaming times. Such an improvement is not only convenient. It’s a necessary upgrade to the web’s currently overloaded content-delivery systems.

 

Protection of Intellectual Property

As is well known, digital information can be infinitely reproduced and distributed widely because of the internet. This has given web users globally a goldmine of free content. However, copyright holders have not been so happy, losing control over their intellectual property and suffering financial loss. Smart contracts in a blockchain network can protect copyright and automate the sale of creative works online, eliminating the risk of file copying and redistribution.

Mycelia (http://myceliaformusic.org/), for example, uses blockchain to create a peer-to-peer music distribution system. Founded by the UK singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, Mycelia enables musicians to sell songs directly to audiences, as well as license samples to producers and divvy up royalties to songwriters and musicians, all of these functions being automated by smart contracts. The capacity of blockchains to issue payments in fractional cryptocurrency amounts (micropayments) suggests this use case for the blockchain has a strong chance of success.

 

Proof of Authenticity and Existence

Sphereon (https://sphereon.com/) processes documents and unstructured data and integrate these with blockchain to create immutable and independent verifiable records of transactions and Proof of Authenticity and Existence of documents, emails and other information objects.

Proof of Authenticity and Existence refers to creating an unalterable date and time stamp for a specific object. This means that you can prove that a certain information object, like an email, file, document, phone-call or video, existed at a certain point in time and that it is authentic, i.e. it has not been changed. This is accomplished by digitally signing an object and thus creating a unique identifier. The identifier gets then committed into the distributed blockchain ledger, and the transaction gets timestamped as well. Since every entry in the blockchain is immutable, this means that you have proof that this specific object existed at a certain point in time.

Using the same API, an object can be verified and validated. The API again creates a unique identifier and verifies this unique identifier against the blockchain ledger. If there is a match, the API returns a valid match as well as the original time-stamp. If not, it returns an error message that the document is not identical (it has been changed) and should not be trusted implicitly. Thus, we are able, beyond any doubt, to prove that the document (or object) is authentic and existed at a certain moment in time. This serves as a Proof of Existence and Proof of Authenticity.

 

Independently Verifiable Audit Trail

Using a blockchain ledger for document-related transactions created an immutable history of all actions performed on the document itself: Creation, Approval / Rejection, Changes, Versioning, etc. ECM or BPM applications involved in the execution of the process can register every transaction internally, creating their own audit trails. But this audit trail is biased by the tool itself. Each tool is simply stating that someone has done something on an object at a specific time, using that tool itself. It’s like a system certifying the use of itself. You see the conflict here. All document-related transactions happening on a blockchain are, by the nature of the network, independent, immutable and can be verified by anybody, providing transparency, compliance and, most importantly, trust.

 

Privacy and Confidentiality

It is very important to understand that the documents, objects or digital assets themselves are not stored in a blockchain network, but just a unique cryptographic digital key that represents the digital asset. This guarantees privacy and confidentiality.

The digital asset is kept independent from the blockchain. It can be kept in a digital archive or be distributed to third parties. This is up to the owner. As long as the digital assets are unchanged, the unique digital key will remain the same and can be verified at any time in the future.

 

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