WHAT IF A SATELLITE COULD AUTONO-MOUSLY SELL YOU A PICTURE OF YOUR HOUSE THROUGH A BLOCKCHAIN-ENABLED PROTOCOL FOR A HANDFUL
OF COINS? AND WHAT IF THOSE COINS LITERAL CAME FROM SPACE? IN THIS TEXT, LEONARDO DELLANOCE LOOKS UP TO SPACE IN ORDER TO ANALYZE LEGAL AND ECONOMIC CHANGES HAPPENING ON THE GROUND. CHANGES THAT WERE STARTED BY THE DISRUPTIVE BLOCK-CHAIN TECHNOLOGY, FIRST IN THE FORM OF BITCOIN, CONSIDERED BY MANY TO BE A POWERFUL, TRUST-BASED TOOL FOR DEMOCRATIZATION. BUT IS THIS CLAIM TO BE TRUSTED?
There is an Italian proverb that goes: “It’s good to trust others, but not to do so is much better”. That used to sound like cynical but useful advice for living in the world. Until November 2008, when a paper titled ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-peer Elec-tronic Cash System’ was sent to a cryp-tography mailing list by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto.1 After that, the word ‘trust’ took on a different techno-political relevance. BitCoin was the first-ever cryptocurrency, brought to life not only as a stateless currency but also as a radically new way of exchanging money, through its underlying cryptographic technology, the blockchain. The blockchain is defined as a digital ledger in which transactions made in Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are recorded chronologically and publicly.2 In other words: time of transaction, entities involved, and amount are all recorded and stored in blocks which are grouped in a chain, publicly available to anyone in the network. The combination of public availability, safety and synchronization makes the blockchain the perfect tool for establishing trust between the parties involved in any transaction. (It replaces in many ways the role of the State, as lawful guarantor of transactions happening in its realm.) Even though true in principle, the establishment of this new technology-based trust seems to be more difficult to realize in practice, even for the most enthusiastic blockchain advocates, especially on a large scale. But above all, the promise of democratic change towards economic and political equality that many see in the blockchain, as a trust-based technology, might be misplaced and way too optimistic, as recent plans to bring BitCoin in space have revealed.3 This seems to be the case with Jeff Garzik, co-founder of Bloq Inc. and contributor to the Bitcoin Core, who first proposed to bring the Bitcoin infrastructure to space in 2013. Garzik’s proposal is to buy satellites and to launch them into orbit, thereby creating an autonomous infrastructure for BitCoin. The idea sounds extremely futuristic, but it actually isn’t. Its realization relies more on the funds to be found than on technology to be invented. In fact, a company like Dunvegan Space System is able to design low-cost and standardized satellites called BitSat, a type of CubeSat (miniaturized satellites built on multiple cubes measuring 10x10x10 cm).4 BitSats are thus nano-satellites produced precisely for hosting the infrastructure of Bitcoin and projected to fly in low Earth orbit (LEO).5 The latter aspect is as fundamental as the former because, as the saying goes, time is money, and beaming Bitcoins from too far away from the Earth’s surface takes too long to be efficiently profitable. Another aspect is that launching satellites into space is not as expensive as it used to be, especially because small satellites can piggyback on bigger, commercial launches.
So it is possible to send a fleet of nano-satellites into low Earth orbit at little expense. But why would anyone do it? The concerns behind this project are many, but all are essentially linked to the possibility of an attack on the blockchain of Bitcoin. The value of a cryptocurrency depends precisely on the account of the transactions made with it and on the subsequent coins present in the network. Trust is both the condition and result of the blockchain, and therefore any attempt to attack is ultimately aimed at breaking the trust. One type of attack is, for instance, the Sybil attack where the attacker refuses to add new blocks to the chain, faking that s/he did not spend any Bitcoins, creating in that way two blockchains.6
It is an example of the downside of a distributed network. In what way could BitSats solve this problem? The ultimate goal of the project is to create an orbiting source of truth, which keeps the network in check by communicating with all the nodes on the surface.7 Ironically, this paranoia ultimately defeats the key concept of decentralized trust, which is the main appeal of Bitcoin.
This project has yet to be realized, but it gives us a perception of the degree of bold thinking that is going on in certain tech communities in an extreme way. If this idea came from Silicon Valley tech giants, we would not be surprised because we have gotten used to their top-down centralized approach. But the fact that they come from communities in which the main ideological fetish is the blockchain, presented on every occasion as the future of distributed, trust-based networks, makes them worth paying attention to. A sharp critic would say that to ground an analysis and critique on intentions is not consistent, which is true. But that project works very well as a point to enter the logic of other smaller plans that are being implemented as we speak.
On August 15th 2017 Blockstream, a blockchain technology company, launched its satellites in space with the aim of allowing anyone on the surface of earth to participate in the Bitcoin network.8 The event generated a lot of enthusiasm on the Internet — space is still perceived as the frontier to colonize for the future. Besides all the hype about a satellite infrastructure for Bitcoin, the project is less ambitious or radical than it first seems. As many outlets reported, the satellites orbiting earth can potentially bring BitCoin to everyone on the planet, but limits on the ground could prevent the project from reaching its goal. The idea is to let anyone, whether able or unable to access a decent Internet connection, conduct transactions in BitCoins and keep the network in check by having a version of the BitCoin’s blockchain on their computer, which is a basic requirement for participation. The fact is that the few technological gadgets needed to receive the beam from the satellites are still quite expensive, especially in certain areas of the world. In addition, an internet connection is still needed to make the connection with the satellite work in both directions. On top of that, hosting a BitCoin node with limited Internet and computational capacity is by now more an act of charity towards BitCoin than a real investment in a financially profitable technology. And these are the limits for its technical functioning at the user end.
Other elements of this project hint at what idea of trust is pushed forward that does not necessarily coincide with what you would expect from a blockchain-enabled system.
A first element is that Blockstream is a corporation that has to make profit to survive. Adam Back, CEO of the company, has already anticipated two future services of this new infrastructure.9 One is the possibility for BitCoin mining companies to store a backup of their wallet in the satellites for a fee, in case the Internet collapses or is switched off.10 That makes sense, as people have invested millions in mining BitCoins and extracted billions of them for future use. Anyone tends to become paranoid after investing so much in one specific product. So for a fee, BitCoin mining companies executives can numb their anxieties over the Internet and have a good sleep. At the same time, the system could be made available to app developers to beam their data down to users, again for a fee. This is good news for many businesses and users alike who could not access services in their area. But what this implies is that Blockstream will not have leverage on the blockchain, but on the fundamental switch that makes it available for all. That may not be alarming for the populations living in the so-called Global North, where an e-infrastructure has been developed for decades and their Internet access is supported by fiber-optic cables, but it is for everyone who relies exclusively on the satellite network to go online. Furthermore, Blockstream is not the owner of the satellites. They are partly leased to it by another commercial enterprise (in that sense, the CuboSats fleet would solve the problem). But as of today, the trust-based, decentralized system known as the Bit- Coin’s blockchain is brought to you in some areas of the world by a company which more closely resembles other cloud computing corporations than anything else, hosted by a commercial satellite corporation on their devices. This infrastructural system looks much more like Russian dolls than a distributed network, and this may have political consequences in the future.
Let’s assume for a moment that all the criticalities mentioned above are not that important, and that what the Blockstream’s project (and any other one linked to BitCoin or the blockchain) will deliver is purely the possibility to participate in the new economic and legal reality of the blockchain. In this scenario of global reach, everyone participates in the blockchain of BitCoin, whether through fiber-optic cable or satellite connection. Very few people would be able to mine BitCoins and therefore to participate in the network for financial profit, and the rest would use the blockchain as a technology of trade and exchange. Therefore the main possibility of the blockchain is not economic but legal, as it provides a shared, encrypted, publicly accessible record of anything that happens when data is exchanged between nodes in one huge distributed database. The advantages rovides are not small, ranging from one global record of transactions to ‘smart-contracts’. (Ethereum, a crypto- currency created by Vitalik Buterin, is pioneering in this field with a self-made blockchain for distributed autonomous organizations.) As of today, the presence of multiple databases in which users’ data is stored ultimately slows down bureaucracy, economy and the job market, and together with mistakes, typos and misspelled information results in an enor- mous waste of money (a 2002 report estimates that data costs 600 billion USD in the US alone per year).11 As Adam Greenfield, American writer and urbanist, argues in his book Radical Technologies: “the greater part of the interest in new blockchain applications is corporate, governmental and institutional”.12 Because “such complex organizations are currently compelled to make enormous outlays on systems that improve data quality, they are often exposed to significant liability for data errors they fail to prevent, and above all they bear the impact of these circumstances directly on the bottom line”.13 These are problems that the blockchain would potentially solve all at once, whether in the form of BitCoin and Ethereum or any other one.
Therefore, the first speculative plan by Garzik and the actual, implemented project by Blockstream reveal a possible next step in the way the legal and economic reality works: on hard-coded trust that is by no means what we are used to. Some five months before Blockstream announced its landing in space, the World Economic Forum published an article titled ‘This isn’t sci-fi: A space-based sharing economy powered by nano-satellites could save humanity’.14 Apart from the grandeur of the title, the article deals with the dropping of costs for satellite manufacturing and launching (through reusable rockets), coupled with blockchain-enabled security. The article states: “A sharing economy in space means the distributed ownership of space assets and the data and communication services they produce. In this economy, satellites and their ‘products’ would not only be owned by for-profit entities and governments, but by non-profit community groups, NGOs and individuals. They could even be ‘self-owned’ by the assets.”15 The scale of this new infrastructure of networked, blockchain-enabled satellites is so monumental that the system (an orbiting sensorial system that registers and sees everything on the surface of earth and below 24/7, all year around), will gather an amount of data already called ‘The Digital Twin of Earth’. In this new economy, the possibility of smart-contracts between individuals and the satellite itself has already been envisioned. Thanks to the blockchain, the satellite becomes a legal actor which can sell and negotiate prices for images it captured in a fully automated fashion. Greenfield argues that the smart-contract is the legal technology that enables the rise of a post-human economy, where most of us will become part of the ‘unnecessitariat’ while non-human entities run the economy.
Perhaps that is the case, or maybe not. What is becoming clearer, however, is that the promise or the illusion that BitCoin, and later its underlying blockchain technology, first provided of fully distributed, encrypted, synchronized and trust-based system that would finally create a hacking-proof, global democratization is quickly dissolving. The risk that the blockchain at this point will accelerate tendencies to- wards a further increase of power, and not a redistribution of it, is more than a merely skeptical scenario, as its potential is well understood by corporate and institutional powers alike. Therefore, a close look at trust in the blockchain society makes accountability a better word to describe it. An accountability that potentially works for everyone, and the record of which is distributed among all, and that can be achieved only through a state of almost total awareness (read: surveillance) by a global sensorial apparatus. From this perspective, the increasing interest in autonomous space infrastructure seems to be an implementation of established power structures rather than the frontier of a truly radical shared system.
Satoshi Nakamoto is the anonymous creator of BitCoin and the first BitCoin miner. His/Their identity/ies is unknown but recent rumors report that the NSA found him/them: https://medium.com/cryptomuse/how-the-nsa-caught- satoshi-nakamoto-868affcef595 (Last viewed 15/09/17)
This definition is brought to you by Google Dictionary.
The author is aware that BitCoin and the blockchain are
not the same thing, and they are therefore not used as synonyms in the article. Offering the reader a full overview of the intricacies of either BitCoin or the blockchain would take a whole book to describe — surely by someone much more knowledgeable than the author on the technicalities.
http://dss.co/bitsat.html (Last viewed 15/09/17)
Dunvegan Space Systems signed a contract with Deep Space
System for the production of four satellites to start with.
To complete a Sybil attack, the artificially altered version of the blockchain needs to be forcefully pushed in order to be
adopted by all nodes in the network, thus making the original one permanently discarded. For a more in-depth description: https://bitcoin.stackexchange.com/ questions/50922/whats-a-sybil-attack (Last viewed 15/09/17)
https://www.prlog.org/12313639-bitcoins-in-space-one- step-closer.html (Last viewed 15/09/17); see also C. Bleish, ‘An Interview with Jeff Garzik, Bitcoin in Space’,
BitCoin Magazine, July 17, 2014
https://blockstream.com/2017/08/15/announcing- blockstream-satellite.html (Last viewed 15/09/17)
Alyssa Hertig, ‘Blockstream Is Using Satellites to Beam BitCoin Down to Earth’, August 15, 2017. At https://www. coindesk.com/blockstream-using-satellites-beam-bitcoin- earth/ (last viewed 5/10/2017); see also Luke Parker, ‘Blockstream Satellite broadcasting the Bitcoin blockchain across the globe’, August 15, 2017. At https://bravenewcoin. com/news/blockstream-satellite-broadcasting-the-bitcoin- blockchain-across-the-globe/ (last viewed 5/10/2017)
Mining is a misleading term but no better name was found to describe this completely new reality of value extraction. BitCoin mining companies are corporations which invest substantial amounts of money in hardware, staff, facilities and electricity to produce BitCoins by laying blocks on the chain through brute force calculations.
M. McFarland, ‘The Human Cost of Computer Errors’, Markkula Center for Applied Ethic blog, June 1, 2012, scu. edu/ethics/focus-areas/internet-ethics/resources/the- human-cost-of-computer-errors; W. W. Eckerson, ‘Data Quality and the Bottom Line’, 5/1/ 2002. At http://www. estgv.ipv.pt/PaginasPessoais/jloureiro/ESI_AID2007_2008/ fichas/TP06_anexo1.pdf
A. Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, London: Verso, 2017
Powered by Nano-satellites Could Save Humanity’, World
Economic Forum Agenda, March 31, 2017