Glass Houses: Transparency and Privacy in Information Economies

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Computer Science

Abstract

In recent years, the trust that society places in opaque centralised mechanisms run by government, network operators, and financial institutions has been eroding, with various events (e.g., the financial meltdown of 2007 and the hack of the DigiNotar certificate authority) illustrating that high integrity cannot be achieved merely through trust in one or a handful of parties. As a reaction to this erosion in trust, two alternative architectures have emerged: users have either flocked to systems that have no central point of trust; or they have increased pressure on central entities to provide more openness and visibility. In both of these settings, the main technique that has emerged to provide these properties is a distributed ledger; i.e., a list of events that have occurred within a given system that is created and stored by a distributed or even decentralised set of parties. Storing such ledgers in a distributed and transparent manner allows these systems to achieve full public auditability, in which any user can check for themselves that the system is functioning correctly.

Given the potential applications of distributed ledgers, one might be tempted to use a single approach as a way to provide auditability or distribute trust. Requirements in one setting may be very different from those in another, however, so one approach cannot be indiscriminately applied. As an example, SSL certificates are public, so their issuance can be stored on a public ledger. On the other end of the spectrum, systems such as financial settlement, supply chains, and personal identity management all deal with highly sensitive data that cannot be included as-is in a globally visible ledger. Balancing these application-specific requirements with both the benefits and limitations of distributed ledgers is the main focus of our research.

To understand the requirements in each of the settings mentioned above, our research will be conducted with five user partners: the Bank of England, which is interested in using distributed ledgers for financial settlement; the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), which is interested in the provision of benefits; the Robin Hood Fund, which is interested in allowing for the trading of entitlements to the fund; Provenance, which is interested in transparency in supply chain certification; and the Google Certificate Transparency team, which is already using distributed ledgers to log the issuance of SSL certificates. Each of these user partners will give us insight into a different potential application of distributed ledgers, and by constructing technical solutions that meet their diverse requirements (e.g., the need for privacy or scalability), we can impact their eventual deployments of these technologies.

Planned Impact

The intended beneficiaries of this proposal are academic researchers, the UK government, the technology and financial industries, and the general public. The proposal addresses how to use distributed ledgers to provide benefits across a variety of settings, including supply chains, financial infrastructures, and the management of personal identity and information. This proposal has the potential to solve concrete problems that occur in these settings, as well as other settings where distributed ledgers may be used.

We describe our impact across three categories: academic, government/society, and industry.

Academia.

Academically, the goal of this project is to open up new lines of interdisciplinary research on distributed ledgers. The main avenues for achieving this goal are to publish research papers in international peer-reviewed conferences and journals, give invited talks at universities and other research institutions, visit and host academic researchers, and interact with an interdisciplinary set of researchers via the UCL Centre for Blockchain Technologies. We expect that the combination of all these activities will provide the widest possible exposure for our research, thus helping it to achieve meaningful impact across multiple academic communities.

UK government and society.

The UK government has publicly expressed interest in distributed ledger technologies, and the findings of this research programme could directly impact any deployments, both in shorter and longer timescales. The main avenue for achieving this goal is via our user partners, visits and discussions with other government entities, and workshops held throughout the course of the project.

Two of our user partners, the Bank of England and the Department for Work and Pensions, are central components of the UK government that deliver solutions to enormous populations. The Bank of England is the central bank of the United Kingdom; as such, any solution that they adopt would have immediate and widespread impact. Similarly, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is responsible for administering welfare and pensions to the entire United Kingdom (and indeed are the largest government department), so any solution they adopt would directly affect millions of users.

In addition to individual meetings with these user partners and the kick-off workshop described above, we plan to host regular workshops throughout the course of the project for these and our industrial partners. These workshops will augment our individual meetings in providing our user partners with updates on our progress, discussing emerging opportunities, and identifying additional user partners with whom it may be beneficial to collaborate.

Industry.

Many major financial institutions and technology companies are already seeking ways to incorporate distributed ledgers into their products, but ensuring the security and usability of these technologies prior to deployment is critical for their success. The main avenue for achieving this goal is via discussions and internships with our user partners, invited talks at companies and industry workshops, and workshops held throughout the course of the project.

In terms of our industrial user partners, the deployment of Google's Certificate Transparency (a technology based on distributed ledgers) is already partially underway, and in addressing a shortcoming in the SSL ecosystem the project has the ability to affect every user of the Internet. While Provenance and the Robin Hood Fund are both much newer companies, their potential reach is also quite broad and their current relative autonomy allows them to deploy blockchain-based solutions without the struggle that a larger company would face. We will actively engage with these user partners, both via the individual meetings and workshops mentioned above, but also by sending pre-doctoral research assistants to conduct internships and assist with pilot studies.
 
Description We have addressed all of the work packages associated with this grant. This was done as follows: for WP1.1, we presented a paper at CCS 2016 that explores models for systems providing transparency and how to prove them secure. We are still exploring this topic as well. For WP1.2, we presented a paper at NDSS 2018 looking at a new way to achieve scalable consensus, while still achieving privacy and supporting advanced functionalities, and released an open-source prototype implementation. We also presented a paper at AFT 2019 that was a systematization of knowledge (SoK) of the broad topic of consensus. For WP 1.3 and WP1.4, we ran a pair of online workshops in June 2020 to look at user attitudes towards the need for data transparency, with the contexts being finance (addressing WP1.3) and food and fashion supply chains (addressing WP1.4). We now have a paper under submission based on the findings of this workshop. For WP2.1, we published numerous papers exploring the topic of privacy: one at PETS 2018 that looked at how to achieve anonymity in Ethereum; one at USENIX Security 2018 that looked at the limits of anonymity in the Zcash cryptocurrency; one at Crypto 2018 proposing new techniques for zero-knowledge proofs (an important privacy primitive) compatible with the trust assumptions in distributed ledgers; one at NDSS 2019 that looked at achieving anonymous credentials; one at CCS 2019 proposing efficient zero-knowledge proofs for the setting of distributed ledgers; and one at Asiacrypt 2019 that proposed a new design for anonymous cryptocurrencies. For WP2.2, we presented a paper at a workshop at ESORICS 2018 on the topic of registering identity in distributed ledgers. For WP2.3, we present a paper at AFT 2019 that proposed protection methods for smart contract platforms, which will have particular impact on end users and their safety. For WP3.1, we presented two papers at the BITCOIN workshop at FC 2018, one exploring governance in distributed ledgers and one looking at the centralisation in the mining process. For WP3.2, the aforementioned workshops exploring user attitudes towards data transparency also address these questions. For WP4, we have thus far organised five workshops: a kickoff workshop for our user partners and other invited guests, one associated with the Open Music Initiative, one associated with Furtherfield Gallery to engage more general practitioners in this area, one at an academic summer school on the topic of security and privacy, and the pair mentioned above. We are also involved in an extended engagement with Furtherfield Gallery and some of their partners to explore the user experience with distributed autonomous organisations (DAOs) and perform a pilot study with three different platforms.
Exploitation Route Several of our papers present systems that others may deploy (and we have already have several requests about this), or explore aspects of cryptocurrencies and their communities that people may take as advice.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Security and Diplomacy

URL http://glass-houses.cs.ucl.ac.uk/
 
Description Two of the research papers from this project were used to create spin-outs. The first, the AFT 2019 paper led by Patrick McCorry (a postdoc on the grant at the time), was used to create PISA Research and subsequently AnyDot. The second, the NDSS 2018 paper produced by Prof. George Danezis and his research team, led to the creation of their ChainSpace startup. The members of this company were hired by Facebook in January 2019 and continue to work there today, on the Calibra project (including Prof. Danezis and former postdoc Shehar Bano).
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Financial Services, and Management Consultancy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Company Name PISA RESEARCH LIMITED 
Description One of the postdoctoral researchers employed on this project, Patrick McCorry, went on to found this company based on the AFT 2019 research paper he wrote during his time at UCL. 
Year Established 2018 
Impact This company has produced two tools to date, both for use within the cryptocurrency ecosystem.
Website https://www.pisa.watch/
 
Description Academic research panel (Consensus) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a panel at Consensus 2017, the biggest industry conference about blockchains and cryptocurrencies. The audience was very engaged and asked a lot of questions about the role of academic research and how we operated. I received many followup emails from participants asking to engage further.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Alternative Architectures for Distributed Ledgers (EPFL) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This was an invited talk at the Swiss Blockchain Summer School, run by EPFL and attended by 50-60 international researchers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://blockchain-summer.epfl.ch/
 
Description Anonymity in Cryptocurrencies 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I gave a talk at the Stanford Center for Blockchain Research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Anonymity in Cryptocurrencies 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I gave the keynote talk at the Workshop on Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain Technology
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Bank of England roundtable 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact This was a panel held at the Bank of England in March 2017, to discuss their requirements around distributed ledgers and how they might be deployed. It was a good way to engage with one of our user partners and led to further discussions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Distributed Ledgers: How, Why, and Why Not? (Croatia) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This was an invited talk at a summer school attended by 150+ PhD students from all over the world, in addition to other international researchers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://summerschool-croatia.cs.ru.nl/2017/
 
Description Doing Good on the Blockchain 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Using the networking funding for the grant, in collaboration with Furtherfield Gallery we put on a workshop called Doing Good (on the Blockchain). There were 60 participants from various backgrounds and industries. I gave a talk and we had several other invited speakers. The event generated a lot of interesting discussions, both at the workshop and in followup emails I received.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.daowo.org/#doing-good-on-the-blockchain
 
Description Science and the law seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact I gave a talk and participated in this seminar at the Royal Society, attended mainly by judges and other members of the Royal Society.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Top Ten Obstacles for Distributed Ledgers (After Money symposium) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was an invited talk at the After Money Symposium, put on by Chris Speed at Edinburgh. There were probably 50-60 people there, largely artists and people in industry.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.eca.ed.ac.uk/event/after-money-symposium-book-launch
 
Description Top Ten Obstacles for Distributed Ledgers (WebRoots Democracy) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was an invited talk at an event, "Blockchain and its applications for democracy", organized by WebRoots Democracy. The event was very popular and generated a lot of interesting discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://webrootsdemocracy.org/2017/12/07/blockchain-applications-democracy/
 
Description Top ten obstacles for distributed ledgers 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact I gave a talk at an event entitled "Blockchain and its applications for democracy".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://webrootsdemocracy.org/2017/12/07/blockchain-applications-democracy/