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Breaking Bitcoin

News | October 2nd, 2014

Cover by Raul Gomez and Max Morlock

Two Fargo men have developed a software program that allows them to attach data to bitcoin and other cryptocurrency transactions. This would be advantageous to many because bitcoin and others utilize block chain technology to create a permanent ledger that could become a digital archive to withstand the test of time.

A block chain is a sequential digital transaction database based on the bitcoin protocol. Bitcoin’s ledger is said to have the ability to survive a global thermonuclear war because it because only a single node out of thousands is needed to resurrect the entire network, a reason many have sought to use it.

Merging the idea of digitally archiving documents that are in bad shape or limited number with the block chain technology was the brainchild of local software developer Eric Bobby and his brainy business partner Adam Hasbargen. Hasbargen hatched the idea in discussions with Bobby and in a few months, Bobby came up with a prototype of what would become Apertus Disk Drive (ADD), a program they are now offering as a free open source in hopes of working out remaining bugs. They have been attaching images to their bitcoin and other cryptocurrency transactions for about a year and also archiving them on a website called BitFossil.com, where users can access data included on transactions without having to download the software.

“Eric came across Bitcoin a while ago and we didn’t know what to make of it then,” Hasbargen told HPR. “We pulled it apart and found that behind it was block chain technology and the block chain technology is just an archive of all the transactions through the past. It occurred to me that it would be amazing if we could pair useful data onto this block chain because you can’t go back and change it. So I thought if you could pair useful data of the past, our history, our art, our stories, onto the block chain, it would become, I think, a more valuable thing.”

Anyone with a bitcoin wallet has access to the ledger, with this software they would have access anywhere around the world to data posted on these transactions. The idea of how you could break down barriers of government censorship, borders and firewalls with this ability isn’t a stretch in the imagination.

“When I saw the block chain and you have this portion of the block chain that’s considered immutable, you can’t change it because it’s the way the bitcoin block chain functions,” Bobby said. “The longer bitcoin runs, the harder and harder it would be to for someone to actually change it. And I would say now it’s basically impossible for someone to change the bitcoin block chain. So here’s this digital place where something is immutable, so it’s really the first time where we’ve had a digital place that there’s no possible way for you to change it. So we’ve thought about a way to take those books that were aging and put them into this place that is immutable and keeping it that way forever.”

Because of that it’s easy to see why countries like China or Russia, already skeptical of the independence of cryptocurrencies, may have even more issue with them. Attaching data that exposes corruption or abuse to transactions transmitted around the world may be a way for dissidents to get their information out despite government efforts to suppress news of their efforts. It could even aid the efforts of those such as Julian Assange of Wikileaks and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“Here, suddenly we have this technology where there is no censorship any longer,” Bobby told HPR. “The day that this was created, it ended censorship … Whereas before we had the censorship age, now we are coming to the age of freedom of information. Now we are approaching this time where governments can’t hide anymore, they can’t hide that stuff anymore. If someone gets it and puts it on there, it’s transmitted to every person on the globe.”

The ability for anyone with this technology to put data on transactions is not without its drawbacks. What is to stop anyone from putting credit card numbers, child pornography, copyrighted information, even viruses on transactions with this type of freedom? The answer is nothing. However, Hasbargen said nefarious users can be found.

“It’s still traceable, but if someone does put something on there that’s copyrighted, the information, their wallet address will still be the start of this transaction, so it is traceable,” Hasbargen said. “Bitcoin isn’t anonymous, it’s pseudo anonymous so you can be traced if you put on something that could be considered illegal or immoral.”

As far as viruses, the Apertus software has technology within it to prevent things such as someone creating a program within to say destroy all bitcoin wallets.

“By default, all the clients, they filter out any type of executable file. They could still be there but it won’t let it write to your disk,” Bobby said. “It will let you know that it’s there and will say here’s the file name; and it’s like anything -- you don’t ever run a program from someone you don’t know.”

With this new ability to enhance bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, what is to stop countries like China or Russia from blocking them or even worse trying to take them out? Money would be the primary drawback to them doing so. If they ever did figure out a way to block citizens from their country from participating in cryptocurrencies, a notion many experts doubt is possible anyway, they would essentially prevent anyone in their country from accessing their funds currently held within bitcoin.

“They basically have to tell people in China that have bitcoin, sorry you can’t use your money any more,” Bobby said. “I know there are probably some people in China that have deep pockets with some power that are going to be really pissed off if they tell them, we’re going to block all their money. Because that’s really the only way for them to. Actually, I don’t think there is any good way to do it. If somehow they do figure out a way to block all satellite communications or anything coming into China, if they figured out a way to do that, isolate themselves completely. As soon as there’s a leak in their firewall, as soon as there is a momentary gap in that, all that data is going to instantly flood back into them and it will all be available again. As it’s coming in, they can’t filter it. They have to let it all come in together otherwise they lose all their money.”

Also, were someone to figure out a way to block users from using this software on bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, another idea in doubt by experts, it would essentially prevent normal transactions and affect other users. Users with extra code in their transactions pay extra mining fees to get confirmation, something that also helps bitcoin overall and Apertus users aren’t the only ones who do so.

Plus there’s always the idea that, should bitcoin be taken out, messed with or just plain not have as many users anymore, anyone wanting to put data on transactions could immediately move to another cryptocurrency.

“If a country or entity tried to stop bitcoin, you’d just create another coin if you want,” Hasbargen said.

With all the scrutiny this new technology may bring, it leads some to believe perhaps these two gentlemen are trying to take out bitcoin by adding more problems to something that already has had many holes punched through it. However, Bobby and Hasbargen feel strongly that the Apertus program will actually help bitcoin rather than hurt it.

“We feel that putting information in that’s valuable to people on the block chain will actually bring in more interest to bitcoin,” Hasbargen said. “Right now bitcoin is at its lowest point since last November. The price has plummeted, interest has gone down a little bit and we kind of feel that maybe if people could really understand what block chain technology is, that they’d have more interest in bitcoin and bring up its value frankly.”

This article marks the first time Bobby and Hasbargen have spoken of the ADD technology. They expect a flood of scrutiny both good and bad to come as a result of it but are confident any objections or questions raised about its abilities they have already answered in their own minds and discussions. Ultimately, they are hoping the added attention and users will help make the program better.

“Well, we’ve started the open sourced project for Apertus Disk Drive so now that we’ve got to the point where we want to start telling people about it, we really hope to build that community up and have lots of people come in and help us make it more stable, tweak it. We want people to adopt it, start using it on bitcoin and multiple different coins,” Bobby said.

As innovators in the field of creating a permanent digital archive, the two men are proud that Fargo will be included in the history of their story. They’ve been including pictures of Fargo as well as their daily lives in transactions up to this point.

“When historians 500 years from now look back and go to the beginning of the block chain, which 500 years from now it’s going to take them a long time to get back there, when they go look at that, they are going to see these things we are posting now, they are going to see we are recording history for them right now,” Bobby said. “And it’s really interesting to think that Fargo is going to be the very beginning apex of that recording. The first photos are going to be of me and Adam, those are some of the very first photos, and then you will see about 50 photos of my wife.”

Both Bobby and Hasbargen are pretty confident of the impact this technology can have in the world of archiving and cryptocurrency. They feel it will bring about much change in both fields because of people’s desire to be first.

“I’ve just been basically archiving everything because again it’s that idea of knowing that you are an early adopter and everyone wants to be an early adopter,” Bobby said. “They want to be the one to say that I was the first one to do this or the first one to do that; so you are going to have this explosion of people who want to be the first to put something of a different genre on a block chain. So that’s where I think it will kind of explode. I think it will happen real fast. Free speech revolution!” 

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