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by Joshua Jenster

In an ever-growing digital world, trust becomes more scarce. Manipulation of people, data, and documents has never been as big of a problem as it is now. It is the mission of VIDT Datalink to bring back the trust to important and valuable documents; being able to do risk-free business. And as such, we are always looking to add new ways of trust and security to these documents so we keep getting closer to achieving our mission. An important aspect of adding trust and security to timestamping is the context. The aim of this publication is to expand the context and propose a new way of working with a dynamic context.

The value of timestamping

A timestamp refers to encoded information identifying when a certain event occurred. Examples of this would be recording the time and date of a login request, a document being created or a photo being taken. Timestamping is found throughout many digital use-cases and is important for keeping records of when these events occurred so we can refer back to the timestamp in order to prove the occurrence. Therefore, the value of a timestamp lies in the importance of the specific use-case. Timestamping a signed legal agreement will prove to be very valuable when a dispute arises, while the timestamp of a photo taken on vacation only to be used by yourself might not be as important.

Timestamps are a way to set in stone a specific truth, proof that some data existed at a certain point in time. These timestamps have to be secure in order to be trustable. Technologies like PKI have been traditionally used to create timestamps. With the rise of blockchain technology and distributed ledgers, however, linked timestamping is becoming more popular. Because of the core properties (immutability, transparency, and security), in addition to avoiding PKI-related risks, blockchain technology is a very useful technology for timestamping which can be used to create indisputable timestamps.

In essence, this is the core-business of VIDT Datalink. The timestamping service of VIDT Datalink allows businesses to timestamp any data or document in one or multiple blockchains so the integrity can always be verified. In other words, VIDT Datalink provides a service to provide the ‘proof of existence’ of documents and data.

Why the context is important

In many use-cases, a timestamp on itself is not enough. Understanding important information like who created the timestamp, to what purpose the timestamp was created, and what the timestamp represents are vital to determine the value of a timestamp. This information is what is called a context: the circumstances that form the setting for, in this case, the timestamp, and in terms of which it can be fully understood (Oxford Languages).

Think of the context as the definition of how and why whereas the timestamp itself represents the what. Typical contextual information is who made the timestamp, the description of what the timestamp represents and the timestamp itself represents the data, and of course, the date and time.

The context can be used by humans to understand what kind of information the timestamp represents. But this does not mean that an automated process, like a computer, can do the same. This can easily be achieved by having a predefined protocol regarding the structure of the context, and the timestamp itself. However, this would mean that for every process requiring a different context, a new protocol has to be established which can be very time consuming and is prone to misinterpretations.

A dynamic context

Historically, defining protocols is what has been done throughout the creation of the internet. For example, schema.org creates, maintains, and promotes schemas used to structure (define a protocol) data on the internet. This can be anything ranging from web pages to physical luxury goods to articles. Our good friends at Wordproof are working on a collective called the Trusted Web which aims to develop new standards to define ownership and the right to distribute content on the web. This process is very similar to what schema.org is doing and as such, they are actively working on expanding the schema registry.

When it comes to automation and the use of timestamps in these kinds of processes, it might not always be feasible to use the protocols defined by these kinds of collectives. A different type of context is needed that allows for more than just the definition and structure or data, but for example also how this data is handled. This is where a dynamic context might come into play. A context can be defined by the communicating parties that have automated certain processes that allow the exchange of timestamped data. In order to successfully understand and process this data, a dynamic context can be used allowing the systems to work without human intervention. Take our Internet of Environments case as an example: Data is collected from sensors which is then processed so it can be used in hourly or daily reports, which in turn are used to create predictions and trends. Using a dynamic context allows us to define how the data is collected, what it represents, and how we can handle the data. This means that a report can be built up from multiple timestamped data collections, and allows us to verify not only the authenticity but also the structure and origin of the data used to create this report. Simply put: we would be able to create profiles that represent the existence of data and connect these profiles while being able to verify the authenticity.

Modeling a dynamic context

Modeling such a dynamic context is an important aspect of timestamping automation. There are multiple important factors to take into regard. The first one is reusability. The dynamic context has to be able to be reused across multiple processes or systems. This saves development resources and will shorten the implementation time while allowing modular system designs.

Secondly, interoperability. The dynamic context should be accessible using different types of interfaces with other software systems. This factor would be mostly provided by VIDT Datalink which clients can make use of.

Thirdly, documentation. Having a well documented dynamic context enables swift implementation. Without it, misinterpretations can arise which will corrode the value of the timestamps itself.

Modeling the context is dependent on the use-case. It should be additional information to what the timestamp represents. Insights in academic performances coupled with the timestamp of a diploma, or the sensor calibration values coupled with the timestamp of the data for example.

Implementation

It is a must to take into regard the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) laws when implementing this dynamic context because there is a possibility that the context contains personal information, especially due to the fact that VIDT Datalink operates in Europe.

It begins by looking at what exactly we want to achieve by implementing such a dynamic context. It starts with proving the authenticity of the underlying document. Then to attach a unique set of metadata to this document while also proving the integrity of this metadata. And it ends with enabling verifiers to prove both the authenticity of the document itself, but also the metadata while using it to perform certain actions.

A great way to store the dynamic context is to use a so-called Non-Fungible Token (NFT). These NFTs are unique and not mutually interchangeable. This gives us the opportunity to dedicate such a token to a document in a similar fashion to the NFT Vintage Watch use-case.

Instead of using the NFT to provide a proof-of-ownership, the token can be used to provide a context-of-authenticity.

Technically, the NFT can be used to prove the integrity of a context that would be stored in a central database hosted and owned by VIDT Datalink. Even though this seems to be a contradiction to the decentralization aspect of blockchain technology, it means we are able to work with sensitive information without immutably and publicly displaying it; and thus adhering to the important aforementioned GDPR laws. A unique hash can be generated from the context which is stored in the NFT in combination with the unique fingerprint of the attached document to prove both the authenticity of the document, as well as the context. This allows VIDT Datalink to act as a gatekeeper to sensitive information by adding security measures like passport-protected context verifications so only authorized and authenticated users can access it, while still having transparent and immutable proof of integrity. In the future, special hybrid ledger solutions can be used to expand the technical aspect of this use-case, so more decentralization can be achieved.

Final notes

Timestamping is the core-business of VIDT Datalink and is used to bring back trust to valuable documents by providing an easy-to-use, scalable, and automation-enabled service. The context provided with these timestamps gives more insight into the situation regarding the underlying document. A dynamic context would bring trust and value as it allows organizations to define new protocols and add more metadata to these documents.

Even though technical perfection should always be the objective, it is hardly ever completely achieved due to non-technical factors. In this case, it would be due to specific laws that prohibit the use of currently available technology. Luckily, a hybrid solution where integrity is secured using blockchain technology while the documents and its attached contextual data are secured on a service layer of VIDT Datalink allows for the execution of such a use-case while adhering to all the specific laws. Using this implementation route, VIDT Datalink will be the go-to solution to provide proof-of-authenticity, proof-of-ownership, and context-of-authenticity.

Learn more about timestamping and the added value at https://about.v-id.org/

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