Zero-Knowledge Proof (ZKP) will mark an important milestone in the evolution of blockchain and Web3. A recent study reveals how adopters are already using ZKP and what to expect.
The age of information technology continues to move forward in spurts, and the current rise of blockchain is one of its most compelling trends. It turns out that the long-stable public-key cryptography technology housed capabilities that were yet to be discovered. Blockchain is a reinvention of secure communication technology. When the histories of the internet and blockchain come together, we will realize how much more sophisticated ways of interacting online have grown. Zero-knowledge proof is a key part of blockchain technology. As the understanding of Zero-Knowledge Proof (ZKP) progresses, unexpected use cases are discovered and new tools are developed. Therefore, ZKP is likely to become a component of many applications and industries. A study conducted by the Mina Foundation gives clues as to what to expect.
Web3 and blockchain
Some might be tempted to consider Web3 as a curious offshoot of traditional computing, but that would be a mistake. We must consider Web3 as a key area for future computing applications. Web3 does not replace conventional information technologies, it spearheads them.
ZKP, an applied complexity theory
At the highest level, Zero-Knowledge Proof allows you to prove that you know something without divulging what you know. The privacy implications are obvious, but ZKP is also essential for scalability. When one uses a zero-knowledge proof to perform an expensive computational task, one can usually re-prove the proof without having to do a new computation. In a sense, zero-knowledge proofs follow naturally from complexity theory and cryptography. Much of modern encryption (of the asymmetric type) depends on complexity theory, because asymmetric security relies on the use of functions that are realizable in one form, but not another.
As a result, mathematics is the big obstacle to understanding ZKP. Fortunately, it is possible to conceptually understand how zero-knowledge proofs work without necessarily knowing what a quadratic residue is. Nevertheless, for those who are interested, we can say that a quadratic residue of y, for a value z, is: . This rather esoteric concept was used in one of the first articles on Zero-Knowledge. Much of cryptography is built on exploring the fringes of mathematics (especially factorization and modulus) to find useful properties. Encapsulating ZKP’s complex mathematical calculations in easy-to-use libraries is the key to widespread adoption. There are thousands of interesting things you can do with these kind of one-way functions. In particular, one can establish shared secrets over open networks, a capability upon which modern secure communications rely. Zero-Knowledge asks the following question: is it possible to use similar types of intelligent calculations to prove something while keeping the information hidden? The answer is yes.
ZKP apps and protocols
Today, zero-knowledge proofs are constructed by demonstrating that a given computation has taken place. Protocols like ZK-SNARK and ZK-STARK are two important examples of protocols providing this proof in a digestible format. Once one has ZKP capabilities, one can assert that something is true and others can accept it with a high degree of probability. Zero-Knowledge Proof is a form of probabilistic proof. These proofs are complex, which presents an additional challenge to make them resistant to attacks. Progress in this area is therefore slow. However, zero-knowledge proofs continue to grow in power and are now able to demonstrate many claims in a relatively compact format. Expanding what can be proven and diversifying the systems in which this evidence can fit are key areas of research. Another area of research is to make deployment as simple as possible.
ZKP and the Future of Blockchain
The Mina Foundation has done some interesting research on the importance of ZKP in the blockchain industry. In particular, the Foundation asked blockchain users and developers about the use of ZKP in their sector. Privacy and performance are the two main drivers of ZKP adoption. Just over 30% of respondents identified privacy as the most important use case for Zero-Knowledge Proof. Whenever an exchange between parties requires proving that something is true and one can introduce zero-knowledge evidence to do so, confidentiality increases. This is neither simple nor easy, as the proofs themselves and their integration into communication protocols are difficult. Nevertheless, confidentiality is an important criterion of the ZKP. The day may come when essential proofs, for example proof of a person’s citizenship, will be carried out using the ZKP.
On privacy, Evan Shapiro, CEO and Founder of the Mina Foundation said, “We’ve seen a lot of Zero-Knowledge for improving scalability, especially for Ethereum, but programmable applications of ZK for privacy will be one of the top concerns for developers in 2023.” Shapiro also said he was “particularly excited about zkIdentity and the potential of DeFi applications in using ZK to enable Know Your Customer (KYC) compliance processes without collecting or storing sensitive user data.” More generally, Zero-Knowledge Proof can make systems more secure by exposing less information in their activities, which means less chance of the information being exploited for nefarious purposes. One of the interesting findings from the Mina Foundation survey is that users mostly rely on protecting their financial information using ZKP (54.5%). This result is perhaps not surprising, but it must be compared with the 48.5% of users who want to protect the confidentiality of their personal data from governments. This strong demand for the protection of financial information from government scrutiny has not gone unnoticed by tax officials. At the same time, the urge to divulge as little information as possible to a centralized government while paying its legal taxes is a perfectly legitimate right of a free citizen. ZKP systems could apply to taxation. Proving what you owe without disclosing anything else could be a use case of zero-knowledge disclosure.
Another key area of ZKP is performance optimization, named by 18.2% of participants in the Mina Foundation study as the most important characteristic of ZKP. Zero-Knowledge Proof can prove the validity of a calculation in a compact form and thus reduce the number of times this calculation has to be performed. The MINA blockchain uses this feature to summarize transactions on the blockchain, which improves performance and ultimately makes the system less expensive. Business performance and reduced fees are often seen as critical factors for the long-term viability of blockchain. When asked what the most important application of blockchain is, 46% of respondents in this survey said privacy and scalability are both important. In short, the future of blockchain may depend on ZKP’s contributions to making systems more secure and more efficient.
Zero-knowledge proof is at the frontier of cryptographic research. It promises to improve both the scalability and security of cryptographic systems. These improvements have big implications for the future of blockchain and, by extension, the wider world of distributed computing. There’s a lot of work to be done to uncover and realize the zero-knowledge promise, and that work is well underway. It’s a safe bet that Zero-Knowledge Proof will have a significant impact on information technology in the coming years.
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Why Zero-Knowledge Proof Has Become Very Important Computerworld
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