Transactions on the blockchain network are approved by a network of thousands of computers. This removes almost all human involvement in the verification process, resulting in less human error and an accurate record of information. Even if a computer on the network were to make a computational mistake, the error would only be made to one copy of the blockchain. For that error to spread to the rest of the blockchain, it would need to be made by at least 51% of the network’s computers—a near impossibility for a large and growing network the size of Bitcoin’s.6
Typically, consumers pay a bank to verify a transaction, a notary to sign a document, or a minister to perform a marriage. Blockchain eliminates the need for third-party verification—and, with it, their associated costs. For example, business owners incur a small fee whenever they accept payments using credit cards, because banks and payment-processing companies have to process those transactions. Bitcoin, on the other hand, does not have a central authority and has limited transaction fees.
Blockchain does not store any of its information in a central location. Instead, the blockchain is copied and spread across a network of computers. Whenever a new block is added to the blockchain, every computer on the network updates its blockchain to reflect the change. By spreading that information across a network, rather than storing it in one central database, blockchain becomes more difficult to tamper with. If a copy of the blockchain fell into the hands of a hacker, only a single copy of the information, rather than the entire network, would be compromised.
Transactions placed through a central authority can take up to a few days to settle. If you attempt to deposit a check on Friday evening, for example, you may not actually see funds in your account until Monday morning. Whereas financial institutions operate during business hours, usually five days a week, blockchain is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Transactions can be completed in as little as 10 minutes and can be considered secure after just a few hours. This is particularly useful for cross-border trades, which usually take much longer because of time zone issues and the fact that all parties must confirm payment processing.
Many blockchain networks operate as public databases, meaning that anyone with an Internet connection can view a list of the network’s transaction history. Although users can access details about transactions, they cannot access identifying information about the users making those transactions. It is a common misperception that blockchain networks like bitcoin are anonymous, when in fact they are only confidential.
When a user makes a public transaction, their unique code—called a public key, as mentioned earlier—is recorded on the blockchain. Their personal information is not. If a person has made a Bitcoin purchase on an exchange that requires identification, then the person’s identity is still linked to their blockchain address—but a transaction, even when tied to a person’s name, does not reveal any personal information.
Once a transaction is recorded, its authenticity must be verified by the blockchain network. Thousands of computers on the blockchain rush to confirm that the details of the purchase are correct. After a computer has validated the transaction, it is added to the blockchain block. Each block on the blockchain contains its own unique hash, along with the unique hash of the block before it. When the information on a block is edited in any way, that block’s hash code changes—however, the hash code on the block after it would not. This discrepancy makes it extremely difficult for information on the blockchain to be changed without notice.
Most blockchains are entirely open-source software. This means that anyone and everyone can view its code. This gives auditors the ability to review cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin for security. This also means that there is no real authority on who controls Bitcoin’s code or how it is edited. Because of this, anyone can suggest changes or upgrades to the system. If a majority of the network users agree that the new version of the code with the upgrade is sound and worthwhile, then Bitcoin can be updated.
Perhaps the most profound facet of blockchain and Bitcoin is the ability for anyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or cultural background, to use it. According to The World Bank, an estimated 1.7 billion adults do not have bank accounts or any means of storing their money or wealth.7 Nearly all of these individuals live in developing countries, where the economy is in its infancy and entirely dependent on cash.
These people often earn a little money that is paid in physical cash. They then need to store this physical cash in hidden locations in their homes or other places of living, leaving them subject to robbery or unnecessary violence. Keys to a bitcoin wallet can be stored on a piece of paper, a cheap cell phone, or even memorized if necessary. For most people, it is likely that these options are more easily hidden than a small pile of cash under a mattress.
Blockchains of the future are also looking for solutions to not only be a unit of account for wealth storage but also to store medical records, property rights, and a variety of other legal contracts.