Anonymity in Bitcoin and Future of Blockchain

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Bitcoin is a powerful and successful digital currency and based on it’s underlying blockchain technology it has simultaneously been heralded as the future of finance and a gateway to the criminal underworld.  Governments around the world are pushing an agenda which would see the banning of end-to-end encryption on one hand and the anonymity of Bitcoin on another. End-to-end encryption has become increasingly popular across consumer software from Apple’s iMessage to WhatsApp.

“True anonymity in Bitcoin is only a myth, currently,” notes Vijay Michalik, Research Analyst for Digital Transformation at Frost & Sullivan. “There is full visibility of all transactions. While they’re only linked to a pseudonym and not a real-world name or address, every transaction is viewable through a number of different blockchain browsers.”

The government argues it needs to be able to court-order access to private data in order to counter terrorism. Even though recently, the terrorists who attacked in Paris were found to not have used any kind of anonymous protocols in their communications – openly using SMS, governments are using the attack to try and take on encryption. 

This comes at the cost of both privacy and security for the general public. This threatens anonymity, one of the most powerful characteristics of Bitcoin, and the hope for crypto-anarchists who would see the Bitcoin protocol development continue along the path to true anonymity. Bitcoin’s ability to circumvent oppressive governments and offer a safe haven from the data harvesting of Google, Facebook and Amazon would disappear if de-anonymization occurred on a mass scale.

Blockchain analysis, as a relatively new market sector within Bitcoin, demonstrates the weakness of pseudonymity. Its main function is a data source for exchanges other financial services businesses to comply with financial regulations. They collect metadata, incidental information attributed to transactions, and IP addresses linked to nodes and use these to identify and blacklist criminals.

True financial privacy doesn’t exist on the Bitcoin blockchain. Without a redesign, this should be a serious concern. Not only for the politically oppressed, criminals and crypto-anarchists. Blockchain analysis techniques can only improve. It’s believed that huge swathes of addresses could be de-anonymized over time. It doesn’t take much to put everything together once you have a few pieces of the puzzle. This would leave a complete history of your financial information publically available, forever.

“For most users, income and complete spending history would be available for anyone to see. From friends to colleagues, commercial businesses, governments and criminals,” comments Michalik. “For businesses operating in Bitcoin, cash flow, supply, demand and other competitive information would be exposed to their rivals. In this case, Bitcoin is a worse option than traditional finance channels.”

Despite these technical shortcomings, Bitcoin is a powerful tool, whether for payments, remittances, microfinance or government circumvention. Bitcoin’s secure peer-to-peer system provides important new capabilities to financial technology and cost savings for consumers. Comprehensive action, inspired by regulation, towards de-anonymization would minimize the potential benefits of Bitcoin.

Anonymity is a powerful promise of Bitcoin, which unencumbered, is a tool for transformation of business and finance. Heavy regulation or de-anonymization would stunt its growth irrevocably.

About Richard Kastelein

Founder of industry publication Blockchain News, partner at ICO services collective CryptoAsset Design Group (helped raise over $200m+), director of education company Blockchain Partners (Oracle Partner) and ICO event organiser at leading industry event  CryptoFinancing (first ICO event in Europe) - Richard Kastelein is an award-winning publisher, innovation executive and entrepreneur. He sits on the advisory boards of half a dozen Blockchain startups and has written over 1200 articles on Blockchain technology and startups at Blockchain News and has also published pioneering articles on ICOs in Harvard Business Review and Venturebeat.
 
Kastelein has spoken (keynotes & panels) on Blockchain technology in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Barcelona, Beijing, Brussels, Bucharest, Dubai, Eindhoven, Gdansk, Groningen, the Hague, Helsinki, London, Manchester, Minsk, Nairobi, Nanchang, San Mateo, Shanghai,Tel Aviv and Venice. His network is global and extensive.
 
He is a Canadian (Dutch/Irish/English/Métis) whose writing career has ranged from the Canadian Native Press (Arctic) to the Caribbean & Europe. He's written occasionally for Harvard Business Review, Wired, Venturebeat, The Guardian and Virgin.com and his work and ideas have been translated into Dutch, Greek, Polish, German and French.
 
A journalist by trade, an entrepreneur and adventurer at heart, Kastelein's professional career has ranged from political publishing to TV technology, boatbuilding to judging startups, skippering yachts to marketing and more as he's travelled for nearly 30 years as a Canadian expatriate living around the world.
 
In his 20s, he sailed around the world on small yachts and wrote a series of travel articles called, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Seas' travelling by hitching rides on yachts (1989) in major travel and yachting publications. He currently lives in Groningen, Netherlands where he's raising three teenage daughters with his wife and sailing partner, Wieke Beenen.

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