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The Big Picture On Digital Receipts

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but: we, the people of the Internet, have collectively run up a colossal amount of technical debt. Much of our online infrastructure consists of band-aid and/or legacy Rube Goldberg solutions hacked together with bubble gum and baling wire; and the only way to pay back technical debt is to fix it.

The good news is, we’re finally doing just that. I come here not to bury the tech industry, but to praise it. A lot of really interesting progress has been made this year. Much of it probably seems subtle or experimental, to the average user, to date…but the potential repercussions could conceivably extend into every corner of our lives.

Let’s start with Bitcoin. Don’t look at me like that. The blockchain technology that underlies Bitcoin is a major technical breakthrough that could, in time, revolutionize both the Internet and the financial industry as we know them–and the first steps of that potential revolution are now under way.

I give you Ethereum, “a platform and a programming language that makes it possible for any developer to build and publish next-generation distributed applications,” which is no longer vaporware, and has raised some $15 million, not from venture capitalists, but by selling “ether,” the Bitcoin-like instrument that serves as Ethereum’s “cryptofuel.”

To some people that sounds like snake oil; to the more technically grounded it sounds like a scalable, generalized version of Bitcoin’s blockchain that can be used to build whole new categories of applications. Will it work? Hard to say. Is it worth a collective $15 million bet? Indeed it is.

In another corner, fighting much the same fight: MaidSafe, powered by a variant distributed-consensus system. As Natasha Lomas puts it:

What that means in practice is a network that does away with an intermediary layer of servers and datacenters — replacing that with peer-to-peer infrastructure […] the users of the network are also acting as the network infrastructure by donating a portion of their spare hard drive capacity — with built in incentives for them to do so in the form of a network specific cryptocurrency

Do these little startups not convince you? OK then: from industry rhino IBM comes Adept, which combines a blockchain, the BitTorrent protocol, and a simple end-to-end encrypted-JSON library into a proposed substrate for the Internet of Things.

How big a deal is all this? Well, Bitcoin and its variants, ie “programmable money,” could, at least conceivably, be an existential threat to the entire financial industry as we know it. I realize that sounds hyperbolic. I’m not (yet) even saying it’s likely. But it’s not out of the question.

Similarly, distributed systems like Ethereum and MaidSafe raise at least the prospect of a decentralized Internet where, instead of relying on central servers and Stacks like Facebook or Google, applications become distributed, peer-to-peer, and reliant on no central authority. And the Internet of Things? …I’m told that’s supposed to be big.

Secure peer-to-peer applications are appearing all around. Consider, for example, Places, an end-to-end-encrypted sharing app (for files, messages, VoIP, etc.) that supports both peer-to-peer and hub-and-spoke connections. To quote its co-founder Vigile Houreau: “It’s not only an app. It’s a server that runs on your client side.” Similarly, BitTorrent has just added a secure chat application called Bleep to its panoply of peer-to-peer services.

In the interim, we should at least make a point of securing our connections to our servers (and other devices) — and there’s some good recent news on that front, too. I hereby loudly applaud CloudFlare for their new Keyless SSL, which lets their customers support secure connections–and perfect forward secrecy–without having to ever turn their private keys over to CloudFlare. (Introduction here; far more detailed and technical writeup here.) Good stuff.

This notion of securing your customer’s data without holding the keys used to encrypt it, so that you can’t decrypt it and turn it over even if you want to, appears to be gaining steam:

Now, granted, not everyone is fully convinced:

…but in general, it’s fair to say that over the last year or two, in part thanks to Edward Snowden, major companies have realized that the security infrastructure of the Internet has accumulated a whole crufty mass of cancerous technical debt, and are now working to pay it off. Meanwhile, blockchain-based startups are working to restructure the Net on a far more fundamental level. We live in very interesting–and very promising–times.