A distributed ledger (also referred to as a shared ledger or blockchain) enables a diverse set of people to share a database without needing to trust one another. It achieves this by requiring thousands of different computers across the network to store and process the data, such that no individual actor controls the network, and there can be no single point of failure.
One of its most influential implementations has been in the digital currency bitcoin, a peer-to-peer method of exchanging digital money that makes users full controllers over their digital assets, and removes reliance on an intermediary like a payment processor or a bank. Bitcoin is essentially a vast, decentralised database of transactions, which is highly tamper-resistant, fully transparent and auditable by anyone. One startup believes that this could provide the foundational technology for a fairer digital identity system on the web.
Blockstack is creating a global system of digital IDs, which are written into the bitcoin blockchain. This provides an alternative to the current Domain Name System (DNS) for the web, which is the system that directs people to the right server when they type a website address into their browser. The fact that websites may rely on just a single centralised DNS server means that the servers themselves are bottlenecks that are vulnerable to attack.
In contrast, the Blockstack name registry is run in a decentralised way, and is built around user IDs that only the individual owner has access to. A user’s identity can be verified by encrypted data stored on the bitcoin blockchain, from which the entire system derives its route of trust.
Websites and web users request to pull data that runs on each person’s own server, personal cloud or computer. Blockstack is building a new generation of applications on top of this infrastructure, which promises to provide “a new decentralised internet where users own their data and apps run locally”.