Blockchain is the underlying technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Unlike physical currency, digital cash and cryptocurrencies come with a very real problem called Double-Spending. Let me explain what that is. When I email you a picture of my cat, I’m sending you a copy and not my original picture. However, when I need to send you money online, as much as I would love to send you a copy of it, it’s a bad idea if I really do that! With Bitcoin, there was a risk that the holder could just send copies of the same bitcoin token in different transactions, leading to “Double-Spending”.
Newer cryptocurrencies and blockchain networks are susceptible to 51% attacks. These attacks are extremely difficult to execute due to the computational power required to gain majority control of a blockchain network, but NYU computer science researcher Joseph Bonneau said that might change. Bonneau released a report last year estimating that 51% attacks were likely to increase, as hackers can now simply rent computational power, rather than buying all of the equipment.
Once the recording of a transaction is on the Blockchain and the Blockchain has been updated, then the alteration of the records of this transaction is impossible. This is due to that particular transaction record being linked to the record of every preceding one. Blockchain records are permanent, they are ordered chronologically, and they are available to all the other nodes. The diagram shows an extract from the Bitcoin Blockchain.
Although blockchain can save users money on transaction fees, the technology is far from free. The “proof of work” system that bitcoin uses to validate transactions, for example, consumes vast amounts of computational power. In the real world, the power from the millions of computers on the bitcoin network is close to what Denmark consumes annually. All of that energy costs money and according to a recent study from research company Elite Fixtures, the cost of mining a single bitcoin varies drastically by location, from just $531 to a staggering $26,170. Based on average utility costs in the United States, that figure is closer to $4,758. Despite the costs of mining bitcoin, users continue to drive up their electricity bills in order to validate transactions on the blockchain. That’s because when miners add a block to the bitcoin blockchain, they are rewarded with enough bitcoin to make their time and energy worthwhile. When it comes to blockchains that do not use cryptocurrency, however, miners will need to be paid or otherwise incentivized to validate transactions.
Blockchain technology accounts for the issues of security and trust in several ways. First, new blocks are always stored linearly and chronologically. That is, they are always added to the “end” of the blockchain. If you take a look at Bitcoin’s blockchain, you’ll see that each block has a position on the chain, called a “height.” As of February 2019, the block’s height had topped 562,000.
When one person pays another for goods using Bitcoin, computers on the Bitcoin network race to verify the transaction. In order to do so, users run a program on their computers and try to solve a complex mathematical problem, called a “hash.” When a computer solves the problem by “hashing” a block, its algorithmic work will have also verified the block’s transactions. The completed transaction is publicly recorded and stored as a block on the blockchain, at which point it becomes unalterable. In the case of Bitcoin, and most other blockchains, computers that successfully verify blocks are rewarded for their labor with cryptocurrency. (For a more detailed explanation of verification, see: What is Bitcoin Mining?)
Public blockchain networks tend to have pretty high standards for security, while private networks might be a little more trusting. But either way, the rules that form the consensus mechanism are what gives blockchain technology its flexibility and power. Anyone, individually, can check the validity of each transaction and come to a conclusion on whether it’s good or not.