Prioritizing trust in a new pandemic reality

Trust in governments and businesses was already strained heading into 2020, but the global pandemic has ripped trust in two different directions. The pandemic shows that trusting others with information and media control can protect us, but information control can also be used against us. As targeted social media and fake video technology further erodes trust, blockchain technology is becoming a promising tool to help replace it. Symbol blockchain is an especially practical and efficient way to ensure that any file or data is authentic and hasn’t been tampered with. It has potential uses in online IDs, source verification, and all kinds of information media.

2020’s global pandemic has put a spotlight on the importance of trust in today’s society. In particular it’s highlighted some problems of information validation that will need to be solved as we make progress toward a more free, open, and global future for business and society.

Trust can be powerful

Government and business responses to the pandemic have sparked discussions about how much power these institutions should have over our choices. As demonstrated in countries like South Korea and Thailand, a government that exercises control over daily life and information has the ability to protect people in an emergency. Countries that issued unified messaging, closed borders, business, and schools, and kept residents isolated had success keeping infection rates low and saving lives. In contrast, countries with weak responses have generally let residents rely on conflicting information and uncoordinated compliance, resulting in devastating infection rates that have spiraled out of control.

Trust can be dangerous

On the other hand, there’s concern that giving government or business media power over information can eventually be turned against a society. Controlling what citizens can do, say, read, or watch has been a key factor in nearly every example of government corruption or takeovers. Further, social media and data analytics have made it easier to change opinions with carefully targeted stories. Media consumption is steadily moving to the internet, where false advertising and scams are everywhere. Confidence in the objectivity of once-trusted sources like TV news and newspapers is very low. These factors combine to create a crisis of trust. We need organizations powerful enough to protect us, but not powerful enough to enslave or deceive us. 

Trust in government has especially been damaged in countries hit hard by the pandemic, where many citizens view their leaders and news media as not acting in the best interests of the people. This view isn’t likely to change quickly, and we’ll have to find ways to cope with that lack of trust.

Fundamentals of trust

This brings clarity to some big problems. How can we verify what’s true? How do we know where our information came from, and whether it’s been targeted to manipulate our views? Are we being scammed? Even if we have a way to test what’s true, how can we audit truth from falsehood in a practical way with the huge flood of information presented to us?

Systems that help solve these problems will become increasingly valuable in the coming decade, and blockchain is a technology that holds promise. There’s no other technology that matches the power of blockchain as a source of consistent, verifiable information.

Three facets of trust

Let’s break down these issues into a few parts. One part of identifying what’s true is whether it lines up with verifiable events or sources. Did someone enter true or false information in the record? In blockchain, this is known as the oracle problem, and it’s not one that blockchain addresses well yet. A second part of identifying truth is the original source of the information. Who entered it into the record and when was it entered? This is one strength of blockchain. A third part is the history or chain of custody of that information. Has it been changed or modified since it was recorded, who changed it, and when were changes made? This is another strength of blockchain.

Blockchain as a trusted record

While blockchain doesn’t yet have clean solutions for the oracle problem, it’s extremely powerful and efficient at parts two and three. All data added to any blockchain has a signature and timestamp recording its entry, and the history can’t be changed or manipulated. Like trying to delete information from the open internet, even if you change or remove today’s data, there’s always a record of it in the past. This is useful in public chains, which are verifiable by anyone, but it’s also useful in private chains, where a company runs its own password-protected blockchain nodes that are accessible only to approved staff. This means a company can keep auditable records of sensitive company data without expensive on-site redundant systems to prevent downtime, fraud, and data loss.

Moving back to public blockchains, imagine that there’s a public auditable line of custody for each news article, research paper, or advisory website, showing who entered the information, who changed it, and when. The information could even have a stamp of approval similar to a notarization showing it has not been manipulated since it was entered. This could make it easy to verify the original source. As faked video technology improves, imagine how important it will be to verify the original source and authenticity of all media.

Blockchains can add trust in new ways

This type of verification also has many other applications, such as making it trivial to verify IDs, university degrees, memberships, and authenticity of artwork or goods. Client apps have already been developed to make these kinds of verification free and easy using web browsers, mobile apps, or desktop apps. 

Each piece of data can be recorded as a digital asset. The asset can be a file like an article, photo, video, or document, or it can be an on-chain container or token with data pointing to these items. One way to record such an asset is to store the entire file on the blockchain, but this is slow and usually expensive. The advantage is that there’s no chance of losing the file. A less expensive alternative is to keep a copy of the asset data on off-chain servers, and run the data through a hashing algorithm. Then only the hash is recorded on the blockchain, which is very fast and cheap. When someone needs the data verified, they can compare the hash of the stored file to the hash recorded on the blockchain to ensure they are the same. The downside is that if the off-chain files were to become lost or corrupted, they would be harder to recover.

Symbol blockchain’s practical approach

Of course it’s possible to build these kinds of systems on most blockchain platforms, but Symbol is especially powerful for these use cases. Symbol comes packaged with templates for many types of assets that can be configured through the desktop client with no programming needed. These Smart Assets don’t expose developers to human error the same way most smart contract platforms do. And it’s very fast and easy to set up. You can install Symbol, download the client, create an account, and start recording your assets on the blockchain all within a couple of hours, even if you have no experience with blockchain technology.

As demand for information verification increases and the world adjusts to the changes of the 2020 pandemic, we hope you’ll think about how your business or project idea could help restore trust. Symbol may be part of the solution, but the most important factor by far will be the visionaries, the makers, and entrepreneurs like you.