“We really have to stop living in this untrusted world”

Scotland’s leading cryptographer Bill Buchanan on why blockchain is the answer to cybercrime and the hegemony of the tech giants


“Sun Microsystems got it right many years ago when they said the network is the computer, and they were spot on,” says Bill Buchanan, Scotland’s pre-eminent crytopg- rapher, as he tries to make himself heard against the backdrop of a string recital during the launch of the new Blockpass Identity Lab at Edinburgh Napier University. “Tey knew what the future was.

We run too many things locally on our machines and really the net- work has the answer to every single piece of knowledge that’s ever been created. Tat’s knowledge, and we’ve cracked that, but now we need to put every single artefact onto the blockchain.” When Buchanan OBE, Professor

of Computing at Napier, speaks he is one of the technology industry’s loudest voices in Scotland, even if the violins are tempering his reach somewhat on this occasion. Over the course of the last decade, spurred on by the ‘cyberpunks’

who created Bitcoin, a mass move- ment has begun to wrest control of the internet back from the tech behemoths, whose centralised servers control the world’s data. It is not sustainable, accord-

ing to Buchanan, who is happy to provide a home for Blockpass IDN, a commercial entity, at his computing school, which this evening has brought out the new digital economy minister, Kate Forbes MSP, to support a sig- nificant £600,000 foreign direct investment into the Merchiston campus; the lab will explore ways in which blockchain technology can protect personal data from online scammers and hackers. When I ask a company executive why the Singaporean-based outfit has chosen to locate itself at Edin- burgh Napier, he responds, matter of fact, “because Bill Buchanan is the best in the world.” It is a huge compliment and

Buchanan is undeniably an influential critical thinker and innovator, not only in Scotland,


but across the world; each time a high-profile hack targets a Talk- Talk, a British Airways or an NHS, public trust erodes further and Buchanan is commonly the figure the media seeks out to highlight the cybersecurity flaws that led to the exposure. It helps, too, that he is also a fan of decentralised led- ger technologies (DLTs) – of which the Bitcoin-based blockchain is the most widely known – and he firmly believes that they can offer the solution to rebuilding confi- dence in an internet that has been too heavily centralised. For all the difficulties in grasping

what blockchain actually is, Bu- chanan prefers to focus on the end goals. “I’d like every Scottish citizen to have a unique, sovereign identity which is owned by themselves,” he says. “So if there’s an interaction with a public service you will have one identity that will then connect into many different services.”

Blockchain is a ledger that holds the “complete history of every- thing”, he says, expanding on the concept. It is an inherently more secure way to communicate, as individuals keep ownership of their data – rather than depend- ing on third party servers (the tech giants) to store it, instead communicating directly. And if you decimate the whole of the infrastructure, as long as there’s one little node that’s left on the

Professor Bill Buchanan, OBE, Professor of Computing at Napier

network, you can rebuild the whole architecture, unlike a centralised server-based version of the world (what we currently have), where if one bit is hacked, all data is jeopardised. Creating an unique identity,

which is stored on a local ma- chine, will also mean there is no longer any need for multiple pass- words to access multiple services online, some of which you might only ever use once. Passwords, as a concept, “will go”, says Bu- chanan; a single digital identifier, which provides complete ano- nymity, will instead deliver access to all internet-based services. He adds: “Tat’s a scary world

for some. For law enforcement, for banks and money launder- ing, that’s a really difficult world, because you can’t trace money anymore. But the opportunity

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