Since its creation in the early 1990s, the Portable Document Format (PDF) became the standard for the way we share richly formatted documents. One of the biggest strengths of PDF is the guarantee that your file will preserve its visual layout, text, and graphics regardless of where you view it or print it. Adobe created a number of security features which allow you to digitally sign and encrypt a document, which certifies its visual fidelity. With its AES-128 and AES-256 encryption algorithms, the PDF format has sufficient means of ensuring the security of your data. However, some security experts argue that PDFs could benefit from another layer of protection. For example: if a document needs to be signed by multiple parties, and each party signs independently. Since all parties don’t apply equal diligence to their private keys and electronic security, the confidence in the security behind the process suffers. This is where the blockchain might be able to help.
If you have missed the hype around this new beast in the tech ecosystem, you haven’t missed too much yet. The blockchain technology is a relatively new entity best known for its ability to facilitate secure and verifiable financial transactions and the outrageous market swings of the cryptocurrencies associated with the different blockchain networks. In layman’s terms, a blockchain is a group of records, and each entry represents a block. All blocks are linked together and the chain is encrypted and protected against tampering. Each block has a hash value that is capable of representing a complex piece of data, such as PDFs. Furthermore, a blockchain comes with additional utility besides the document’s hash; it can be used to verify the identity of the person who stored the file, among many other single problem solutions like timestamps. The document’s hash can be used to confirm the originality of a document, or to contain multiple drafts of a legal agreement. Authorized and interested parties can verify for themselves that copies of the contract PDF are legitimate by comparing their version’s hash to the one stored in the blockchain. When there are multiple copies, such as those with different signatures, interested parties can use the blockchain to not only assess their validity, but also their sequence by looking at timestamps associated with each document’s metadata. The biggest benefit of such symbiotic relationships will be that all information stored in the blockchain exists outside of the PDF and can be used to validate the document.
Before you run to the store to get your very own blockchain, I want to curb your enthusiasm for just a little while. The current state of development of most blockchains cannot accommodate the near-instant transaction speed we are used to nowadays. There are also many challenges ahead of the emerging tech such as the seemingly infinite scalability we currently get with the various cloud services. That being said, there isn’t lack of enthusiasm for future adopters of the new PDF blockchain hybrid. A notable example is the Port of Antwerp which is currently testing blockchain implementation for their PDF workflow that tracks receiving ocean cargo containers and grants authorized access to the cargo in the containers. The records are stored in a blockchain, and if cargo is stolen, the port can determine who had the most recent access to the container record. It also adds a layer of redundant protection for confirming the fidelity of a document in the event an employee loses the private key for a PDF, and you can only provide a uncertified version of the document.
With all these benefits in view, you have to wonder how trustworthy a distributed PDF validation system can be. The blocks themselves are encrypted with formidable scripts that guarantee the fidelity of the information, but at the moment, there is no assurance how long one has to wait for a transaction request to be completed. Blockchain networks are only as reliable as the consistency and size of the computing power that verifies the various transactions executed in a given network. Most solutions rely on volunteers who commit hashing processing power to the network in return for various tokens which, in turn, they can exchange for a common finite currency such as U.S. dollars. The value of said tokens is constantly fluctuating, which leads to unpredictable support for the network. Until better solutions are offered, PDF blockchain implementations will remain far out of the realm and practicality of corporate implementation.
What are your thoughts on blockchain technology? Leave a comment below, or contact us.