This blog post is inspired by some "what if" videos made by Tom Scott, in which he explores a theoretical futures when Google forgot to check passwords, the dystopian view of the singularity ruined by lawyers or what happens when privacy dies. Here is my take on what might be built in the future on top of the existing blockchain technology.
Any names or examples used in this story are meant for purely illustrative purposes only and are not meant to condone or condemn any actions, companies, governments, technologies or the like.
Knowledge is power, and a lot of money can buy you a lot of information...
The years is 2025, there are almost 20 million bitcoins in circulation and they are valued at $5'000 per coin. While not as fast a growth as many would've predicted, it still puts Bitcoin as the world's 8th biggest currency in circulation, ahead of Canada's dollar, but behind the United Kingdom's pound. For all intents and purposes, Bitcoin and crypto have succeeded - they are used by a lot of people in all walks of life.
The biggest story of the year's first quarter turned out to be the busting of a US-based criminal organization creating superbills - high quality replicas of the "counterfeit-proof" polymer banknotes. What stood out about those bills is not that they were good, but that they were perfect replicas of the banknotes, down to the microprint, security ribbons and the colorshifting ink.
While not an unheard of story (North Korea is said to have done something similar in the past), over the following days of media attention a surprising finding has caught everyone's attention - the criminals got all of the information they needed to make the superbills from "The Dark Wiki" - a Wikipedia-like website residing on the Dark Web, created with the sole purpose of "cataloguing the world's forbidden knowledge".
The Dark Wiki contained detailed articles on many subjects that would land anyone in jail - recipes for narcotics, 3D printer files for military-grade weapons, interrogation manuals from a number of international agencies, copies of standard keys used in "back doors", the complete smallpox genome, or "how-to's" on accessing military GPS signals or the aforementioned printing process of superbills, from 3D prints of various master hubs, etc.
The website was not only dealing with standard articles, but also featured a prominent section on "kickstarting" / requesting information, with the bounties anywhere between a few thousand dollars for creating some malicious scripts to break into some computers, through a few hundred thousand dollars for pharmaceutical recipes of some major drugs, up to a few million dollars for schematics of nuclear weapons.
While the website seemed to lack a single owner, there were a number of prominent "experts" on the website serving as third party escrows on a number of bounties to verify if the information delivered was accurate and precise. They also curated one of the more bizarre part of the website - a scientific journal on "the dark sciences".
While a number of traditional scientific papers have been written on criminals and their illegal activities (such as Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh studying the economics of crack dealing), the Dark Wiki's journal was focused more on scientific research that was itself illegal or borderline illegal - designer drugs, human cloning, synthetic organisms, or experimenting on humans and infants. While so far only the first category had any traction, going so far as having some research grants, the other categories were open for submissions.
With a little help from the Streisand effect, hundreds of millions of people have heard of the website and it became the most searched for topic of the moment. Among the wave of new users that came across the website for the first time then, was a disgruntled 30-something NSA software engineer. Stuck in a dead-end job working on some machination that would further make the agency's reputation worse if it ever was revealed.
What he saw in that website struck a chord with him. When he was a teenager, Wikileaks broke the news. In his early 20s, Snowden's revelations shook the world. This year, he would make both history, and a lot of money for himself.
A month later, the Dark Wiki broke into the news again. A high six-figure bounty was awarded for delivering the information required to access NSA backdoors embedded in billions of devices world-wide. That day would later be known as "the day the Internet broke". The massive-scale hacking that occurred with that information was an order of magnitude higher than the 2014 Heartbleed bug, and it brought down a number of key servers around the world for a few hours before some of the vulnerabilities could be patched and the Internet reconnected.
The following days the governments were dealing with a few major issues. First, any US-based manufacturer was distrusted overnight, with many world governments revving up production on their non-backdoored hardware. But due to the nature of how hardware is manufactured, it would take years for the industry to adjust.
Second major issue was figuring out who leaked the information. The bounty was paid in bitcoin, but since the 2019 halvening hard fork introduced confidential transactions to the network, it became impossible to figure out which address received the funds. An internal investigation was under way at various government agencies to see if some leads could be found...
Lastly, the Dark Wiki had to be shut down - it attracted too much unwanted attention and could cause global security concerns if it was used by large criminal organizations or corrupt governments. With some busy work and exploiting some weaknesses of the Tor network, the website was finally traced to a server sitting in some country with abundant legal loopholes and lax prosecution laws for hosting illegal content. However, the biggest surprise came when it turned out there were only two notable pieces of software on the server - a small wrapper serving the website's frontend and an Ethereum client...
As it turns out, the website was running as a smart contract on the Ethereum platform. All the required information and logic was stored in the distributed ledger, with payments being handled through a sidechain connection onto the Bitcoin network. Editing rights were only given to users that created a high enough proof-of-burn pledges (by donating the coins to the contract itself) and the little governance there was was mostly handled through anonymous users building their reputation by contributing to the website and being recognized by the community. Anonymous donations from people benefiting from the wiki as well as the pledges and other fees allowed for the contract to become a self-sustaining DAO.
After the website was shut down, multiple other mirrors cropped up along with the source code required to access the data locally. Attempts to shut the network down only strengthen it due to the antifragile nature of crypto.
On the 10th anniversary of its genesis block creation Ethereum was no longer seen as a quirky distributed state machine, but as an avatar of unstoppable quest for knowledge in all of its forms paired with the cold machinations of cryptographically untouchable capitalism.
If the Dark Wiki has taught us anything in its following years of operations is that security through obscurity is a joke and that we can't rely on any secrets to keep us safe. In the end, backdoors had to be closed, strong cryptography became the default and the attitude towards cryptocurrencies has changed. Just like you cannot kill an idea, neither can you stop a decentralized network or currency.
What I have described above could be implemented today, at least technology-wise. It would probably still take some time before the technology becomes popular enough for people to start using it as described, but we have some kernels of that already in the form of the assassination market or the now-defunct Silk Road. In due time perhaps we would see some dark web information market develop and turn into some wiki for people to use. Pair cryptocurrencies with the sort of money drug lords or a small government can amass and you might have to be keeping a closer eye on disgruntled or low-paid employees with access to secret information...
I used Ethereum as an example of a platform to host the Dark Wiki, but the same project could be hosten on any platform that supports smart contracts. Please don't read it as condemnation of Ethereum either - I see it as one of the more innovative crypto projects and see it being useful for a number of good projects in the near and far future.