People associate blockchain with bitcoin and the confusing cryptocurrency market.
However, the beginning of blockchain and cryptocurrency was based on revolutionary and freely philosophical reasoning.
Cypherpunks — advocating free transactions between individuals beyond the control and surveillance of the government, business, and banks — were the first people who pushed for blockchain and cryptocurrency.
Blockchain and cryptocurrency are driving new capitalist desires. Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s recent mention of dogecoin on Twitter shook the cryptocurrency market widely. Wall Street and the financial markets worldwide are debating whether the central banks should adopt digital currency.
However, Blockchain Labs CEO Conrad Um raised concerns that the hype of cryptocurrency undermined developing blockchain technology. Cryptocurrency, which used to keep blockchain services safe, has now come to the point of hindering the development of blockchain services, he said. People who use blockchain are different from those use make money out of it, he added.
InfraBlockchain, developed by Blockchain Labs, requires no cryptocurrency. Armed with stability and extensibility, the platform targets social service providers, including state-run institutions and businesses, not the cryptocurrency market.
“The word InfraBlockchain took the first letters from ‘infrastructure.’ We want to make blockchain technology useful for society,” Um said, explaining the company’s starting point and its goal, in an interview with Korea Biomedical Review.
Blockchain Labs developed a certifying vaccination application in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Collaborating with the Korea Disease Prevention and Control Agency (KDCA), the company provided its technology for free to develop a government vaccination certification app COOV. Instead, the company sought profits from elsewhere.
“Vaccination affects our daily lives directly, and we can earn experiences of tens of millions of people at once. With this project, there should be a recognition that blockchain makes our lives better. Then, the vitality of blockchain technology will get stronger,” Um said.
Question: Blockchain Labs came to be known to the public after the collaboration with the KDCA. Can you introduce your company briefly?
Answer: As we do business mostly in the U.S., many Koreans regard us as a new company, but we are not. We found the company in Silicon Valley in 2013. Initially, we provided a P2P-based service. But in 2015, the public blockchain Ethereum came out. So, we made a platform for art and real estate asset trading. The more we provided the service, the more we thought we needed to develop an engine that does not rely on cryptocurrency, to operate a stable exchange. So, we established a Korean subsidiary, Blockchain Labs. The local business started in earnest last year with the medical hemp management business in North Gyeongsang Province.
Q: Ethereum and bitcoin are both cryptocurrencies and blockchain platforms. What role does cryptocurrency play in the blockchain platform?
A: Cryptocurrency maintains the blockchain system regardless of external pressure or circumstances of internal members. Blockchain works by people’s voluntary participation. If someone tells them to do volunteer work when they participate in the blockchain while spending their electricity bills on their computers, these people will turn off the computer and leave the system. Conversely, if no one pays a usage fee, there is a risk of attacking the system or overloading it. However, if the actual currency is received as a fee, the system will depend on the country issuing the currency. Because of this, people need their cryptocurrency.
Q: With the advantage of not needing cryptocurrency, InfraBlockchain set public institutions and companies as the main target. Do you think this affected the company’s cooperation with the KDCA for the electronic vaccination certificate project?
A: We could work with the government not because we had the best technology in the blockchain field but because we had the most suitable form for the government to use. InfraBlockchain has the advantages of both public and private blockchains. It is easier for governments and corporations to adopt because it has sufficient extensibility and does not require a cryptocurrency linked to the market.
We grant operating rights to service users, not users who have many cryptocurrency or mining rights. Then, service users and “miners” who had been separated become the same users. In addition, we strengthened stability by using “stable coins” linked to fiat currency rather than existing cryptocurrencies. When users issue coins to pay for system fees, they deposit funds in a financial institution in advance and get a payment guarantee with coins of the same value.
Based on InfraBlockchain, we completed the prototype of the vaccination certification app in December and went to the KDCA to demonstrate it. As we discussed vaccination certification business with four to five countries earlier, we thought there should be a demand for this. We told the KDCA that a digital vaccination certificate would be a must in the future and that we could develop our algorithm to implement the blockchain system the government wanted. We didn’t get an immediate response at the time, but a few months later, the KDCA contacted us for cooperation.
Q: The government launched COOV, the official electronic vaccination verification app, recently. Then, can we use it as a vaccine passport at an airport now?
A: I should take caution to speak about its role as a “vaccine passport.” For the vaccination certificate to function as a passport, countries need policy agreements in advance. Unlike Korea, not many countries have established vaccination databases systematically.
This kind of issue should be handled with policy. But I thought completing the technology preparation and discussing its possibility was essentially different from saying vague hopes without any preparation. That’s why we focused on preparing the technology.
Q: When the government signaled the introduction of the COOV app, some people worried about personal information leakage or the government’s excessive monitoring of users. Some even said KDCA data could be leaked when they were moved through blockchain or QR codes. Can you comment on this?
A: People introduced blockchain technology to address such concerns. In conventional methods, we need to get data from the KDCA, request the original proof, and hand over the information on who will use this data when, where, and why. Like “Big Brother,” state surveillance on individuals could be possible in these methods.
However, using blockchain, it is possible to prove the original certification without sending all the data to the center. The blockchain contains data demonstrating that this certificate is the original, untampered. Other than the party to whom the vaccination certificate is exchanged, a third party can neither break the blockchain nor interpret this data. The same goes for the QR code. As it becomes more common to leave access records with QR codes, many people seem to associate QR codes with “tracking.” The QR code used by COOV is like a secret passage through which data flows. The QR code does not contain personal data.
Q: Do you think that blockchain technology can solve the risk of data gathering in one place?
A: Yes. But, the notion of “keeping my data and managing it myself” has not spread much in our society. Institutions and companies have also easily obtained user data through various free services. But now, in areas where data centralization was taken for granted, such as “machine learning,” people are studying data distribution technology like “federated learning.”
With the passage of three data privacy laws in Korea last year, the general public was exposed to concepts such as “my data business” and “self-sovereign identity.” People will have a greater desire to own their data and manage it directly.
Companies and institutions, which used to earn data use consent with a simple click, will have to think about the situation where users ask these questions seriously – “Why should I hand over my data for the benefit of others” or “How can I trust that it is safe to hand over my data.” When our society tries to find a way to face a massive social change, blockchain technology will be the answer.