Academics have proposed a system that could extend the anonymity provided by the Bitcoin cryptographic currency into the real world by applying one of its core technologies to a parcel delivery scheme.
The Lelantos delivery system, named after a Greek deity of invisibility, uses blockchain technology inspired by Bitcoin and allows customers to route physical objects in a way similar to the way the Tor anonymisation network handles data packets.
Proposed by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and Concordia University in Quebec, it also borrows ideas from Crowds, a hypothetical system for anonymous web browsing.
It’s the latest application of blockchain to a field beyond the Internet, following broad experimentation with the technology in areas including the financial services sector.
Lelantos uses the technology to store “smart contracts”, which provide concrete proof of transactions without requiring the parties involved to trust one another.
Access to the contracts is provided via a web server and client-side applications used by each of those involved – sellers, purchasers and Lelantos-supporting delivery companies.
“Our protocol eliminates the need of a trusted third party and thus grants service availability, integrates the whole purchase and delivery process in one trusted smart contract… and finally the offered anonymity is piggybacked from both the blockchain and onion routing protocols,” the researchers wrote in their study.
The system is designed to get around the fact that, unlike real-world transactions that can be completed using cash, online it’s difficult to purchase and receive goods without providing information that identifies who you are.
“While the use of cryptocurrencies is very attractive for individuals who want to keep their anonymity, this attractive feature soon disappears when transactions involve physical goods, particularly, because purchasers are required to provide their address information for shipping the purchased goods,” wrote the researchers.
Under Lelantos, a purchaser who wants to receive goods anonymously creates a delivery contract with the seller and with a desired number of delivery companies.
The seller only has contact with the first delivery company, and the delivery companies are organised into a chain, with each passing the parcel on to the next.
Each delivery company knows only the locations they’re picking up and delivering the item to, and the seller can choose to pick up the item at any time wherever it may happen to be, so that none of the delivery firms knows ahead of time that its delivery address is the final one – a feature inspired by Crowds.
The system is based on the Ethereum blockchain, with goods paid for using the anonymised Ether cryptocurrency. The smart contract is similarly anonymised, so that if any of the delivery companies should happen to open the parcel the goods can’t be linked to the purchaser.
“Linking a specific customer to an individual merchant is very hard unless all the contractual delivery companies were compromised or are collaborating with the merchant,” the researchers wrote.
Bitcoin and Tor have both come to be associated with dealing in illegal goods, but the study’s authors argued there is also a legitimate need for anonymity, for instance to prevent the profiling of individuals by unscrupulous people or organisations.
The paper suggests, for instance, that an individual ordering an expensive safe from a compromised merchant or a corrupted shipping agency could risk being targeted for a burglary.
Computer security firm Sophos said the system shows how Internet security technologies are increasingly being applied to the real world.
“This is an ingenious use of the blockchain, and follows a trend in the use of the technology which tends to cut out the middle person,” wrote Sophos’ Danny Bradbury in a blog post. “As with its original application in Bitcoin, the idea with many newer implementations is to remove a single player… and connect people directly to each other, giving them a way to transact while ensuring that no one can tamper with the system.”
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