SAN FRANCISCO — Worried about someone hacking the next election? Bothered by the way Facebook and Equifax coughed up your personal information?
The technology industry has an answer called the blockchain — even for the problems the industry helped to create.
The first blockchain was created in 2009 as a new kind of database for the virtual currency Bitcoin, where all transactions could be stored without any banks or governments involved.
Now, countless entrepreneurs, companies and governments are looking to use similar databases — often independent of Bitcoin — to solve some of the most intractable issues facing society.
“People feel the need to move away from something like Facebook and toward something that allows them to have ownership of their own data,” said Ryan Shea, a co-founder of Blockstack, a New York company working with blockchain technology.
The creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has said the blockchain could help reduce the big internet companies’ influence and return the web to his original vision. But he has also warned that it could come with some of the same problems as the web.
Blockchain allows information to be stored and exchanged by a network of computers without any central authority. In theory, this egalitarian arrangement also makes it harder for data to be altered or hacked.
Investors, for one, see potential. While the price of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies have plummeted this year, investment in other blockchain projects has remained strong. In the first three months of 2018, venture capitalists put half a billion dollars into 75 blockchain projects, more than double what they raised in the last quarter of 2017, according to data from Pitchbook.
Most of the projects have not gotten beyond pilot testing, and many are aimed at transforming mundane corporate tasks like financial trading and accounting. But some experiments promise to transform fundamental things, like the way we vote and the way we interact online.
“There is just so much it can do,” said Bradley Tusk, a former campaign manager for Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, who has recently thrown his weight behind several blockchain projects. “I love the fact that you can transmit data, information and choices in a way that is really hard to hack — really hard to disrupt and that can be really efficient.”
Mr. Tusk, the founder of Tusk Strategies, is an investor in some large virtual currency companies. He has also supported efforts aimed at getting governments to move voting online to blockchain-based systems. Mr. Tusk argues that blockchains could make reliable online voting possible because the votes could be recorded in a tamper-proof way.
“Everything is moving toward people saying, ‘I want all the benefits of the internet, but I want to protect my privacy and my security,’” he said. “The only thing I know that can reconcile those things is the blockchain.”
Blockchains assemble data into so-called blocks that are chained together using complicated math. Since each block is built off the last one and includes information like time stamps, any attempt to go back and alter existing data would be highly complicated. In the original Bitcoin blockchain, the data in the blocks is information about Bitcoin wallets and transactions. The blocks of data in the Bitcoin blockchain — and most of its imitators — are kept by a peer-to-peer computer network.