FAQ

Which blockchain does Blockcerts use?

Blockcerts was built as a technical standard to work across any blockchain. It started in 2016 with the Bitcoin blockchain and then soon expanded to Ethereum. Development work continues for making Blockcerts to work across public chains, and to be easily extended for private chains as well.

Is private information now available on the blockchain?

The short answer is no. What is stored on the blockchain is a 1-way hash. This makes it useful only for verification; i.e. you can hash a certificate and compare to what is on the blockchain. And given what is on the blockchain, the original data cannot be feasibly recovered. This makes it easy for a recipient to reveal a certificate only to intended third parties.

Are blockchain certificates tamper-proof?

Yes, the blockchain is an immutable and distributed store of transactions, with each block building upon the last. When a certificate is issued, its data is compressed into a hash and logged on the blockchain. This generates a “receipt” that can always be checked at a later date. The verification service validates the signature of the issuer and the certificate data; it also ensures that the certificate status has not expired or been revoked.

The friendly version of the certificate displayed online may shift visually, depending on the device displaying it. For instance, it may appear one way in a mobile app and slightly differently in a web browser. While this display may be optimized for different circumstances, the data within the certificate can never be changed.

Can blockchain certificates be spoofed?

The friendly display of certificates could be spoofed to trick a non-technical viewer. This is why it is important to use a separate verification service when circumstances are important. While the issuer may include a friendly verification button below a certificate, the most secure way to ensure a certificate is valid is to use a separate verification service to check the blockchain. That cannot be spoofed.

Can issued certificates be edited?

Certificates are immutable and cannot be updated. We recommend defining batches as a logical grouping of recipients that are not expected to change, e.g. “Graduates of 2017” vs “Graduates.” The issuer may revoke certificates that have mistakes, or, if they simply left out an eligible recipient, the issuer may issue another batch.

How are certificates revoked?

Even though certificates can be issued to a cohort of people, the issuer can still revoke from a single recipient. The Blockcerts standard supports a range of revocation techniques. Currently, the primary factor influencing the choice of revocation technique is the particular schema used.

The Open Badges specification allows a HTTP URI revocation list. Each id field in the revokedAssertions array should match the assertion.id field in the certificate to revoke.

For example, a hosted certificate entry in the revokedAssertions array would look like:

{
  "id": "https://example.org/assertions/71c6cc1e-a8b9-401c-8280-a0063bf67bfd",
  "revocationReason": "Violation of policy"
}

And a non-hosted certificate entry:

{
  "id": "urn:uuid:71c6cc1e-a8b9-401c-8280-a0063bf67bfd",
  "revocationReason": "Violation of policy"
}

Can blockchain certificates allow for selective disclosure of information?

In general, we anticipate the need for a range of solutions balancing convenience, privacy, and security. For example, a recipient may want it to be easy for third parties to view and verify that they graduated with a B.A. from a university with a certain GPA, but only want to expose basic transcript information.

This can currently be achieved through issuing separate certificates, one for high-level information and another with detailed personal information for use in very specific situations.

Fully-featured selective disclosure within a single certificate is theoretically possible by spreading the contents of a document across a merkle tree. This may be addressed in future releases.

Can an issuer create a public catalog of issued certificates?

Issuers must handle recipient information with care. In some previous deployments, participants (issuers and recipients) have chosen to make the original certificates easily discoverable through a certificate web site. This is because the certificates didn’t contain private or sensitive information, and the recipients wanted to promote their certificates.

However, certificates containing personal information, such as the recipient’s address, should be shielded from public disclosure. So, the basic implementation can omit this certificate browsing capability. This is similar to the Proof of Existence approach, which avoids disclosing any information unless the recipient chooses to do so.

Why use a blockchain instead of a PKI infrastructure?

In Blockcerts, the issuer uses their digital signature to provide a credential to a recipient, identified by a recipient-owned public key, and issued on the blockchain. The recipient’s credential contains the Merkle proof linking the credential with a specific blockchain transaction. This is used to establish integrity of the credential; i.e. that it hasn’t been tampered with. Additionally, the recipient-owned public key embedded in the credentials allows the recipient to prove ownership.

To establish authenticity, one must establish that the issuer owned the issuing key at the time the credential was issued. This is why a reliable timestamp is needed. This could be done through use of a timestamping authority (TSA) – more commonly used in a PKI solution – but that places a dependency on a trusted third party.

In contrast, blockchain provides permanent, trusted timestamping by design. It requires massive computational effort – rewriting the entire blockchain – to tamper with the timestamps. Read more on blockcerts wiki

What exactly is in the Bitcoin transaction?

One Bitcoin transaction is performed for every batch of certificates. There is no limit to the number of certificates that may be included in a batch, so typically batches are defined in logical groups such as “Graduates of Fall 2017 Robotics Class”.

The transaction inputs and outputs are as follows:

  • Input:
    • Minimal amount of bitcoin (currently ~$.80 USD) from Issuer’s Bitcoin address
  • Outputs:
    • OP_RETURN field, storing a hash of the batch of certificates
    • Optional: change to an issuer address

The OP_RETURN output is used to prove the validity of the certificate batch. This output stores data, which is the hash of the Merkle root of the certificate batch. At any time, we can look up this value on the blockchain to help confirm a claim.

What is an OP_RETURN code?

Original attempts to store non-financial transactions on the Bitcoin blockchain resulted in bloat of the Bitcoin unspent transaction database (UTXO). The OP_RETURN code was introduced by the Bitcoin core developers to address (but not necessarily endorse) the increasing desire of people to store non-financial data. The code signifies that an output is provably unspendable, allowing transactions to be pruned from the UXTO database.

What determines the cost?

A Bitcoin transaction is determined by the size of the transaction and the transaction fee.

Blockcerts transaction sizes are static and small – they add a single fixed-size OP_RETURN output on top of a standard single-input, single-output transaction. This is true no matter the number of certificates in a batch.

So the cost to issue a batch of Blockcerts is largely influenced by the transaction fee, which is a fee paid to miners to ensure timely mining of transactions. The recommended fee changes over time; current recommended values can be obtained from ‘To get in next block’ of Recommended Bitcoin Network Transaction Fees.

In the cert-issuer project, the transaction fee is configurable. The default value was selected as a higher value to reduce wait time. This setting can be overridden in the config file to reduce the cost, but it may result in long waits.

Does this project prove the identity of an individual or issuer?

Blockcerts has a claims-orientation to identity. This means that identity is always self-curated by the individual through the claims about themselves that they disclose. All claims have to be assessed in some manner. Those claims that are blockchain verifiable are guaranteed to represent what was originally issued. So, Blockcerts is not attempting to prove identity directly. In other words, this solution does not certify the mapping of public keys to individuals or organizations. Further, there is no registration process in this system, so any issuer may issue certificates and recipients may provide any Bitcoin address. However, it is in the issuer’s and recipient’s interest to provide public addresses they own, because this is the only way either can demonstrate ownership of or revoke certificates.

Why is identity separate from claims?

The primary reason is that separation of identity is desirable from an architectural layering perspective. For a certification system, it’s reasonable that adopters will want to establish identity in different ways, and we want to give them this flexibility. At the same time, our design doesn’t preclude identity association. Since the Bitcoin addresses can be any address, recipients and issuers can choose ones associated with a curated profile (e.g. Blockstack profiles).

How do you know a certificate is valid?

The verification process answers questions about the certificate’s integrity and validity:

  • Is the certificate the same as when the issuer issued it? (i.e. How do I know it wasn’t tampered with?)
  • Was the certificate revoked?

The verification process ensures that the certificate you see wasn’t tampered with by comparing hashes with what is registered on the blockchain. It ensures the certificate wasn’t revoked through a convention that relies on spending transaction outputs. See detailed steps.

How does the issuer or recipient prove their association with a certificate?

This codebase allows the issuer and the recipient to make cryptographically strong claims: if either party owns a certificate’s issued-by or issued-to address, then they can also sign a statement with their corresponding private key. Only the owner of the corresponding private key can do this.

The wallet (mobile app) and issuer software will provide a capacity to prove ownership if requested. Currently, the issuer provides a link to their credentials in the certificate, and the standard validation process performs a cryptographic check that the public key at that link actually signed the certificate.