Blockchain thieves and blockchain refugee camps

Most of the May/June 2018 issue of Technology Review, the MIT alumni magazine, is devoted to blockchain. Futurists will appreciate “Inside the Jordan refugee camp that runs on blockchain”, about Syrians living in a potential future of retinal authentication for spending crypto currency:

Haddad’s idea for Building Blocks was to start by creating an account on a blockchain for every family of Syrian refugees in a Jordanian camp. Families wouldn’t then have to wait days for local banks to transfer their money, or have to share identifying information with the banks, where some unscrupulous employee might steal or misuse it. Meanwhile, the WFP, instead of forwarding money before it’s spent, could itself tally all refugee purchases and pay participating stores afterward in local currency. That’s a big deal, since upwards of 30 percent of UN assistance is lost to corruption.

It is great to do good for others, but what about folks who want to do good for themselves? There is an interesting article on hackers who have made off with crypto currency, not only the familiar Mt. Gox heist, but a January 2018 raid on Coincheck (the thieves netted about $250 million on $500 million stolen).

[The magazine also devoted space to its multi-year theme of female victimhood as evidenced by the paucity of cisgender female nerds (could also be celebrated as evidence of a society with so much opportunity for women that they can do interesting jobs instead; see “The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM” (Atlantic), which says “In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions.”). In the introduction to an interview with Amber Baldet, a JP Morgan Chase manager, the “cryptocommunity” is described as “an entitled boys’ club”. The magazine shows its commitment to gender bravery by interviewing this executive, not about technology or finance or what she and her team of coders might be accomplishing, but about “the state of diversity in the cryptocurrency world.” There are two full-page images of the subject, in both of which she shows enough skin to reveal multiple tatoos. (The editors chose to feature full-page images of multiple women in the issue, but men are generally shown at 1/4 or 1/16th this size. An alien reader would assume that women are literally bigger than men.) In the MIT-only section, an engineering professor who earned her PhD in 1964 is quoted as saying “If engineering doesn’t make welcome space for women then engineering will become marginalized.” The journalists doesn’t comment on the seeming cisgender-normative prejudice or denial of gender fluidity (how do the professor, journalist, and editors know that humans currently working as engineers will continue to identify as “male”?)]

Readers: Will journalists end up being some of the main beneficiaries of blockchain? (other than the obvious beneficiaries, such as vendors of illegal products and services) Every magazine or newspaper can recycle every old headline and most old stories by adding “with blockchain” for the next few years?


4 thoughts on “Blockchain thieves and blockchain refugee camps

  1. The oriental world has had an efficient system of money transfer called Hawala for over a millenium. Any half-serious student of antiquity can recognize its predecessors going back to Sumer. Indeed, one can make a convincing argument that early cuneiform first developed to assist in such trade.

    I wondered why the MIT author is oblivious to these traditions. The answer is in the article itself:
    “upwards of 30 percent of UN assistance is lost to corruption.”. If we paint these refugees as a competent people already possessing the tools to take care of themselves, the money spigot will turn off, and smug liberals will no longer have the pleasure of bearing the White Man’s Burden.

  2. I’d like to see someone explain if there is any effective way of using the blockchain idea that doesn’t depend on a whole lot of computational work.

    Here is my technical contribution to Bitcoin and related cryptocurrencies:

    By the way, the one comment there, from one “Paul” (, is so stupid and nasty that instead of deleting it I left it there as permanent evidence of his worthlessness. Something similar occurred on your earlier post

    where your gentle skepticism triggered self-beclownment by commenters “Ben” and “Etaoin Shrdlu” who responded with a very disproportionate amount of invective and spite. There is something unhealthily obsessive about some Bitcoin enthusiasts.

    There are 5 basic problems with Bitcoin, all of which were apparent from the beginning:

    1) It is just one player in the cryptocurrency space, nothing is stopping it being displaced by better ones
    2) You can’t spend it during disasters and disruptions because it requires the Internet to be up (both where you are, and globally) to validate transactions, so it’s no real replacement for gold and silver
    3) It’s not legal tender anywhere and can be banned or confiscated or heavily taxed by governments, so it’s no real replacement for money
    4) It consumes hugely wasteful amounts of energy, and there is no way the transaction costs can be made comparable to bank transfers, which (when done across national borders) are exorbitant rents now but will come down as far as they need to to undercut Bitcoin transaction costs
    5) There is no guarantee that there is no hole in the crypto that will blow it up (although see my linked post above which partially addresses this issue; only partially because in addition to the dependence on the cryptographic security of SHA-256 there is a highly vulnerable infrastructure of other crypto around it for most Bitcoin holders, which has already resulted in a substantial fraction of all the Bitcoin there will ever be being stolen).

  3. It’s been rumoured there was no heist from Mt Gox, but rather Mt Gox was a laundering operation for the infamous Silk Road wesbite and the bitcoins auctioned by the Feds after its takedown are the same bitcoins that were allegedly heisted.

  4. @Joe Shipman:

    Blockchain and proof of work are combined in Bitcoin but are independent concepts. The blockchain is about keeping a distributed ledger of transactions that doesn’t depend on a favored central middleman. Proof of work, the energy-intensive part, is the way to ensure scarcity of bitcoins and avoid inflationary collapse.

    Contrary to popular opinion, there is nothing anonymous in Bitcoin. To get that guarantee, you need a mixer service that launders multiple streams of transactions, but their analogues exist in the traditional currency world as well, and governments have the toolsets to intervene when it is convenient for them to do so (i.e, anytime except when the rich and powerful engage in corruption or tax evasion).

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