Immutability, in the context of the blockchain, means that once something has been entered into the blockchain, it cannot be tampered with.
Can you imagine how valuable this will be for governments and banks?
Imagine how many frauds and white-collar cases can be stopped in their tracks if people know that they can’t “work the books” and fiddle around with company accounts.
The reason why the blockchain gets this property is that of the cryptographic hash function.
In simple terms, hashing means taking an input string of any length and giving out an output of a fixed length. In the context of cryptocurrencies like Ethereum, the transactions are taken as input and run through a hashing algorithm (Bitcoin uses SHA-256) which gives an output of a fixed length.
Let’s see how the hashing process works. We are going to put in certain inputs. For this exercise, we are going to use the SHA-256 (Secure Hashing Algorithm 256).
As you can see, in the case of SHA-256, no matter how big or small your input is, the output will always have a fixed 256-bits length. This becomes critical when you are dealing with a huge amount of data and transactions. So basically, instead of remembering the input data which could be huge, you can just remember the hash and keep track.
A cryptographic hash function is a special class of hash functions that has various properties making it ideal for cryptography. There are certain properties that a cryptographic hash function needs to have in order to be considered secure.
One thing that needs to be clear. It’s called the “Avalanche Effect.”
Even if you make a small change in your input, the changes that will be reflected in the hash will be huge.
Let’s say even though you just changed the case of the first alphabet of the input, it has a huge effect on the output hash. Now, let’s go back to our previous point when we were looking at blockchain architecture.
The blockchain is a linked list that contains data and a hash pointer that points to its previous block, hence creating the chain. What is a hash pointer? A hash pointer is similar to a pointer, but instead of just containing the address of the previous block it also contains the hash of the data inside the previous block.
This one small tweak is what makes blockchains so amazingly reliable and revolutionary.
Imagine this for a second, a hacker attacks block 3 and tries to change the data. Because of the properties of hash functions, a slight change in data will change the hash drastically. This means that any slight changes made in block 3, will change the hash which is stored in block 2, now that in turn will change the data and the hash of block 2 which will result in changes in block 1 and so on and so forth. This will completely change the chain, which is impossible. This is exactly how blockchains attain immutability.