Following a meteoric rise in value over the winter of 2017, Bitcoin’s price began to drop early this year, leading many economists and investors to speculate that the cryptocurrency bubble is about to burst spectacularly.
Yet a recently published analysis by German researchers highlights how one of the digital currency’s greatest strengths could lead to its downfall, regardless of monetary value.
According to their report, governments across the world could be forced to outlaw Bitcoin due to users’ ability to store illegal – and disturbing – content within its open-access transaction ledger, called the blockchain.
Cleverly designed to provide a record of payments that is both transparent and tamper-proof, the blockchain also includes a feature that allows users to insert non-financial information into entries.
This arbitrary data storage has many benefits: It creates a space for relevant transaction notes, improves the functionality of the secure transaction validation process, and even provides a means for safe and anonymous archiving of sensitive data – thus protecting whistleblowers and threatened journalists.
The problem? To buy, sell, or trade bitcoin, every user must download a copy of the blockchain in its entirety, meaning that they are technically in possession of all the undeletable content contained within. And perhaps unsurprisingly, given human nature, many misuse the blockchain to store objectionable content.
“As a result, it could become illegal (or even already is today) to possess the blockchain, which is required to participate in Bitcoin.”
After combing through about 3.5 million instances of arbitrary data on the digital ledger, the researchers were able to extract 1,600 files. Though the majority was harmless, dozens of folders contained links to copyright or privacy-infringing content, and two were link lists to child pornography websites.
Other files contained text or code that, with the correct program or instructions, could be converted into images of a sensitive and possibly illegal nature. (Due to the very limited size restrictions per “block” on the blockchain, full images or large amounts of text must be parceled out into multiple entries.)
These examples are likely only the tip of the iceberg in terms of suspicious content already on the blockchain, the authors emphasize, as many methods for locating hidden files are currently indecipherable without insider knowledge. Plus, new arbitrary data is being continually added.
“Although court rulings do not yet exist, legislative texts from countries such as Germany, the UK, or the USA suggest that illegal content such as child pornography can make the blockchain illegal to possess for all users,” they write, adding that a total of 112 nations have laws against child pornography.
Previous investigations had already raised the alarm over upsetting content within the blockchain, but no nations instituted bans for these reasons. However, in light of their findings, the authors fear that Bitcoin and other blockchain-based cryptocurrencies could be jeopardized over the system’s built-in exploitability in the future.