Record-tampering scandal led to creation of blockchain technology

BEIJING • A scandal in record tampering that toppled a Nobel laureate's career at a private United States university gave birth to blockchain technology.

That was in the early 1990s, when the ink used in different notebooks was the basis of an accusation targeted at a researcher who co-wrote a paper with Nobel laureate David Baltimore.

Researcher Thereza Imanishi-Kari was accused of fabricating scientific data for a paper she co-wrote with Dr Baltimore and others, when a colleague found out that the varying inks used in her notebooks did not fit into the times and sequences claimed in the published journal article.

Dr Baltimore eventually stepped down as president of Rockefeller University as a result of negative publicity surrounding the case.

Dr Imanishi-Kari was eventually cleared of the charges, but it did not assure theoretical physicist W. Scott Stornetta at Bell Labs that the problem of record tampering had gone away.

Society's move towards digitalisation, where digital records could easily be altered, piled on to his anxieties, and he convinced colleague and cryptographer Stuart Haber to work on solving the problem.

That was how blockchain, which uses a decentralised way of storing information, came about.

China has said that it wants to become a global leader in blockchain technology by 2025.

Traditionally, data and information are stored within a centralised, usually physical, location such as a hospital, library or a school. Bitcoin, the world's most valuable cryptocurrency, is blockchain's first real application after some 20 years.

The two researchers came up with "digital blocks" as a new way of storing the information. These blocks would be distributed to different record keepers, or computers.

The blocks contain data and a hash or code that identifies the data within the block, and the hash of the previous block.

The hash, depicted in a unique string of numbers and letters, is what links each block to the previous one, forming the visual of a chain - hence the name blockchain.

The hashes change when the stored data within a block has been tampered with. The blockchain then identifies the "break", and the discrepancy will be flagged. Blocks are added and distributed to all record keepers after a verification process.

Successful attacks are thus deemed unlikely as attackers must change the information within the block and subsequent blocks within the chain and the records held by all the keepers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2021, with the headline 'Record-tampering scandal led to creation of blockchain technology'. Subscribe