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:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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