Like the cloud several years ago, cryptocurrency is the new tech buzzword that’s generated a lot of chatter while leaving many wondering if it’s much ado about nothing. The term “blockchain” often goes hand-in-hand with the cryptocurrency talk, but it has applications beyond that, including email.

Blockchain is a decentralized method for collecting and storing communication records. Each addition to the thread, or block, links to the others in the same conversation. When the process applies to email, it’s a way to create a permanent form of communication resistant to altering and forgery.

A Brief History of Blockchain

Blockchain made its first appearance in the global economic recession of 2009 as a partner to Bitcoin. An unidentified Japanese entrepreneur saw potential disadvantages in the world’s existing currency system and created Bitcoin as a response. At the same time, he began designing a plan to secure and protect the Bitcoin ledgers and transactions for accurate records, and blockchain was his solution.

Typical Industries Currently Using Blockchain Technology

Blockchain methods appear in several of our most prominent business sectors, including:

  • Retail: Blockchain has many applications, from authenticity verification to preventing fraudulent purchases and sales.
  • Healthcare: With its enhanced security features and interoperability, blockchain improves information privacy and functionality.
  • Financial Services: Transaction protection and quick settlements provide cost reductions and operational efficiencies.

The Pros and Cons of Blockchain Email

Like the cloud several years ago, cryptocurrency is the new tech buzzword that’s generated a lot of chatter while leaving many wondering if it’s much ado about nothing. The term “blockchain” often goes hand-in-hand with the cryptocurrency talk, but it has applications beyond that, including email.

It might seem surprising, but blockchain email is a thing, and there are a few projects in development that want to use it to disrupt traditional email systems. Because a blockchain is an open, distributed ledger that’s replicated across many computers and has no centralized point of access, it’s seen as immune to attacks by bad actors. Those features make it attractive for email, which has many weaknesses that can be exploited.

Figuring out a way to make email more secure is key because it’s not going away any time soon. According to OptinMonster, people send a staggering 102.6 trillion emails annually, and in the U.S., it’s used by more than 90% of everyone over the age of 15 (yes, even those who have never known a world without social media).

In addition, 60% of consumers join email lists to get promotional offers, compared to 20% of consumers who follow brands on social media for the same reason. And with a potential return on investment of up to 4400%, email marketing remains a strong growth driver for many businesses.

Blockchain email has benefits that make it attractive to email marketers, but it has drawbacks too, as we’ll explain.

The Benefits of Blockchain Email

There are several reasons why blockchain email is an attractive prospect for anyone who wants to disrupt the status quo, including:

Enhanced Security

The number of nodes involved in a blockchain network makes hacking improbable. A cybercriminal would have to take over 51% of existing nodes to control the entire blockchain. With nodes numbering in the billions, that’s no small feat. This increased protection significantly reduces the potential for spam, spoofing and phishing.

Contract Management and Proof of Consent Ease

Blockchain email technology is beneficial for negotiating and finalizing contracts since it relies upon a ledger and consensus. Once the parties concur, the blockchain provides an immutable record of the terms of the agreement.

With the permanent record, it’s also quick and easy for a business to prove a user consented to receive marketing emails. Rapidly producing those records saves a business time and money and prevents infractions of privacy and promotion regulations.

Each Message Would Be Authenticated

Because a blockchain is an immutable set of records that are authenticated by each of the computers that store copies of it, a blockchain email system would feature a message database that accurately reflects the sending and receiving activity of everyone using it. Despite the development of such security tools as SPF, DKIM, and DMARC, spam continues to plague our inboxes, and nearly all of us have been the recipients of phishing and spearphishing attempts by the bad guys.

However, blockchain email would provide a single source of truth for each message sent and received, allowing users to easily verify that everything they receive came from a trusted sender. Bad actors couldn’t impersonate others, and they would have a hard time sending spam, since their messages would need to be verified.

Users Would (Likely) Have Privacy

Putting email on a decentralized blockchain means that no single party would have control over users’ accounts and their messages. Today, many people “pay” for free email services by letting companies parse their messages for signals that feed advertising machines. Blockchain email would let them keep their messages free from prying eyes, even if those doing the snooping are silicon-based.

In addition, if someone wanted to shut down their blockchain email account, they could easily do so without worrying that their information won’t be completely deleted, unlike many free services that essentially put accounts in hibernation when users attempt to shut them down. If a single third party has control over the data, they can do what they want with it, but if a blockchain email database is copied across many computers, only users will be able to dictate how their information is handled.

Direct Communication With Another

Blockchain technology permits two different nodes to communicate directly with each other. This process eliminates the need for a third-party provider in some cases and also prevents someone else from maintaining control over your business data.

No One Would Ever Lose an Email Again (Hopefully)

A blockchain email system’s database couldn’t become corrupt because there would be no central email server that could be damaged or experience a failure. Even deleted messages could be saved via a mechanism such as an off-chain node, allowing the creation of an archive that users could access when needed.

Even deleted messages could be saved via a mechanism such as an off-chain node, allowing the creation of an archive that users could access when needed.

Email Marketers Could Send More Precisely Targeted Campaigns

Blockchain email could, in theory, result in a wealth of data about its users. Since each person’s identity would be authenticated and the blockchain would contain an immutable source of truth about their email history, email marketers could use artificial intelligence to sift through that data and more precisely target the right people for their campaigns.

While many people might groan at such a concept, it could provide a way to pay for a blockchain email platform. In addition, if people are going to see ads, isn’t it better for them to see ones that are targeted to their interests?

The Downsides of Blockchain Email

However, there are some reasons why you don’t hear a lot of talk about blockchain email these days, including:

The Staggering Storage Requirements

Bitcoin, the largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization, uses a blockchain that was 210GB as of April 2019. While that’s a big database, it’s still not much compared to the amount of space emails typically take up. The average email is 75KB – multiply that by the 102.6 trillion emails sent every year and you’ll see that a blockchain email platform with even a modest number of users would quickly have sizable storage requirements.

Since a copy of the blockchain needs to reside on each computer in the network (5 million of them, in the case of Bitcoin), that means a blockchain email platform could easily dwarf the storage requirements for cryptocurrencies. That’s a scalability problem that would intimidate even the most seasoned IT professionals, although a clever developer could potentially solve that problem by, for example, storing messages off the blockchain and only using it to verify senders and receivers.

In fact, Salesforce recently won a patent for a blockchain-based platform that would store only part of an email, so that the sender and recipient’s copies could be compared to determine whether a message is authentic. A discrepancy would result in the email being marked as spam.

The Need for Guaranteed User Privacy

There are a few companies developing blockchain email, but it’s not clear that any of them are going to make their code open source. Any company that can’t make their code available can’t necessarily guarantee user privacy, which would be a deal-breaker for something as sensitive as email.

The Possibility of Creating “Walled Gardens”

At least one blockchain email service currently in development only lets its users email each other, leaving anyone on another platform out in the cold. It’s reminiscent of the old days, before the web became dominant, when people on AOL and CompuServe couldn’t send messages between the two services.

However, this limitation doesn’t seem to be in place for every blockchain email platform that’s in the works, so it’s possible that this problem could end up being nonexistent.

File Transfer Limits

Many of today’s blockchain providers limit the sizes of attachments you can transmit or store, potentially washing out the benefits of using the technology for some businesses.

A company can use a file hosting system or web applications that are compatible with their email programs to counteract transfer and storage limits.

The Prospects for Blockchain Email

Blockchain email currently lags far behind cryptocurrency when it comes to adoption and interest in the long-term prospects of the technology. It also seems to be gaining less traction than messaging, in-app payments, contract creation, and other use cases.

However, the possibility of using it to combat all kinds of fraud is very attractive to businesses, so it’s likely that blockchain-based like the one Salesforce is developing could win out in the long run. Even if blockchain can’t provide an end-to-end, all-encompassing email solution, it can likely supplement the current environment.

~ Casey

Learn More About Email Privacy and Security Features in SparkPost

Learn More About Email Privacy and Security Features in SparkPost

When you’re looking for a robust email services provider with experience in experience in email deliverability or information on privacy and security, trust the experts at SparkPost. Our in-house team of professionals is ready to help you grow and succeed by optimizing your email operations. Contact a specialist today to get started.