Following a huge amount of hype in recent years, businesses are now starting to seriously consider the potential of blockchain-inspired technology to perform secure and trusted transactions.
More immediate benefits however, could come from a more everyday use case, argues Acronis’ Eugene Aseev, such as proving backed-up files haven’t been tampered with.
“There has been a tremendous amount of attention around blockchain, but there are not many real world examples of this tech yet,” the young Russian head of the company’s R&D centre in Singapore explains. “We thought about how this technology could be applied to data protection.”
When saving a file through Acronis’ Notary product, which was released late last year, a cryptographic hash (a kind of digital fingerprint) is generated for each file being backed up. Any change to the file results in a dramatically different fingerprint. By keeping a record of the fingerprint of the file being saved, a user can compare it with the fingerprint of the file when it is retrieved, to check it hasn’t been modified.
The advantage of blockchain is in these fingerprints being recorded on a public and “immutable” ledger, Aseev explains.
“There’s a significant difference to just populating hashes and storing them locally,” he says. “Despite the fact the hashes are the same and the principles are the same, the way they are stored is completely different. Now we have a public reference to the hash in the blockchain, which can’t be tampered with because blockchain technology is immutable by default. You can’t change anything in this database.
“It introduces a completely new level of trust for user and the parties involved and institutions.”
Acronis says potential applications of the Notary product include protection of intellectual property, recording the chain-of-evidence in court documents, time stamping police video or security camera footage, as well as proving the authenticity, ownership and existence of digital contracts, research data, medical records or purchase orders.
Acronis is also using blockchain technologies as a potential remedy for ransomware attacks.
Onto the Ether
While Commonwealth Bank and the ASX have run trials on private blockchain platforms, Acronis has chosen the public blockchain platform Ethereum.
Aseez and his team constantly evaluate rival networks for their suitability. No network is completely infallible, as last year’s hack of ‘The DAO’ (a kind of Ethereum-based venture capital fund, explained here) showed although the underlying Ethereum network was unaffected.
“Blockchain is not mature yet, and there are a number of questions around it and a number of incidents that have happened with the networks,” says Aseev. “It gives us a lot of challenges – what should be the alternative if something goes wrong?”
Acronis’ 25-strong research team in Singapore benefitted from the frequent presence in the city of Ethereum founder, 23-year-old Russian Vitalik Buterin, who provides them with regular news and updates concerning the platform, Aseev said.
Earlier this week Buterin hinted about the release of Metropolis, a project to make Ethereum more “innovation friendly” to developers without compromising the security of the blockchain. Buterin blogged on Tuesday: “…with the spectre of last year’s security issues now well behind us, work has begun in full force on implementing the Metropolis hard fork.”
Another challenge for the Acronis team is keeping the transaction costs of adding to the Ethereum blockchain down, Aseev said.
“We always need to introduce some optimisation method around how we store the hashes in the blockchain, because we need to keep our cost down for using the blockchain network…which is growing with the growth of our network.”
Blockchain will become a central focus of the company’s development efforts over the coming year, Aseev added.
“Blockchain gives you a number of challenges during the development process, which makes it fantastic actually. Because it’s actually being formed now, it’s not a standard. You always have a new thing to think about, and you’re on the bleeding edge of technology.”