Internet Archive 'carbon dated' using Bitcoin technology

Posted May 29, 2017 by James Walker
The entire Internet has been timestamped using a cryptographic technique based on the blockchain technology that characterises digital cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The work allows Bitcoin timestamps to be downloaded for almost any online content.
A pile of Bitcoins
A pile of Bitcoins
George Frey, Getty/AFP/File
The project was undertaken by OpenTimestamps as an unofficial extension of the Internet Archive. The archive, commonly recognised as the Wayback Machine, caches webpages so older versions can be retrieved after they go offline.
OpenTimestamps has worked through the wealth of indexed material in the archive and timestamped the vast majority of items. In total, around 750,000,000 files have been processed. You can search through them and retrieve their timestamp using a publicly accessible database. Although the work isn't yet completed for the Wayback Machine's webpage snapshots, media including books, movies, songs, documents and software programs are covered.
Although timestamping everything on the web using Bitcoins may seem a strange idea, it actually helps to protect current information for the future. As cryptography consultant and OpenTimestamps worker Peter Todd explained in a blog post, the timestamps will make it easier to spot fake and edited information going forward.
To explain how it works, Todd used the example of Australian scammer Craig Wright who famously claimed to be Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto. Wright produced an encrypted message which apparently proved him to be Bitcoin's creator. It included a key that suggested it originated at the time when Bitcoin was just getting started.
After Wright produced his "proof," experts realised the key was fake and had actually been backdated. While a "lot of reasons" contributed to the outing of Wright as an impostor, an important factor was the Wayback Machine. Its snapshot of the website from the timeframe in question revealed the signature key attached to the message didn't match with the one actually in use.
By timestamping every piece of content on the web, OpenTimestamps aims to stop similar impostors in their tracks going forward. Because all the timestamps can be traced back to the Bitcoin block chain, they can be accepted as proof of when a file was really created. Timestamps in the blockchain cannot be backdated, preventing another Wright from using similar methods again.
The technology doesn't prove a file is entirely legitimate though. Although it provides a definitive indication of when it existed, there's nothing to say that an attacker in the right place at the right time could create keys as events happen.
Todd explained:
"It’s important to note timestamps are not a panacea: they’re just evidence as to when a file existed; by themselves they can’t prove a file is legit. For example, if I had known in 2008 that Satoshi was going to release Bitcoin, I could have generated fake keys and fake Bitcoin papers with 100% real timestamps. While such a scam is much less likely, it’s certainly not impossible."
With the carbon dating of the Internet now essentially complete, it's possible to cryptographically prove whether a certain piece of data actually existed at a given point in the past. This can be taken to indicate whether an attacker has had the opportunity to modify its contents.
You can access the database today via OpenTimestamps' searchable database. The single destination lets you discover when any indexed content was first published online. OpenTimestamps intends to extend the project to Wayback Machine website snapshots in the future, as its infrastructure expands.