Bitcoin’s ‘hard fork’ becomes a reality

From Fintech Business.

Bitcoin cash has entered the scene as bitcoin finally split into two this week following years of community infighting about the future of the bitcoin blockchain.

However, Melbourne-based Blockchain Centre chief executive Martin Davidson said bitcoin cash was just one among many other ‘alt coins’, or bitcoin alternatives, available.

“Bitcoin cash can be thought of as another alt coin just like Litecoin and hundreds of other crypto currencies which have been created by a group of developers who want bitcoin to have a larger block size, rather than follow the road map set out by the Bitcoin Core development team,” Mr Davidson said.

The new bitcoin cash blockchain contains all the information from the previous blockchain but has eight times more transactional capacity (8 megabyte) than the original (1 megabyte), making transaction speeds on the new virtual currency much faster.

The fork was triggered due to a split in the bitcoin community over how to handle the increasing volume of traffic on the 1 megabyte blocks as bitcoin grew more popular.

Though bitcoin cash is only a few days old, it’s possible it will have its own community of users, much like ethereum classic and ethereum, according to Mr Davidson.

“It’s quite possible bitcoin cash will have its own network infrastructure, application layer services and new user base who like the value bitcoin cash brings over the existing, longest standing and most valuable crypto currency, the original bitcoin,” he said.

Blockchain Australia board member Lucas Cullen says most of the bitcoin community is resistant to change, and will likely gravitate towards the coin with the better software.

“There have been many attempts to convince the community that their version [of bitcoin] is better, but most of the time it’s about a majority — and I think most of the bitcoin community are pretty stubborn and pretty resistant to change,” Mr Cullen said.

“We’re pretty risk adverse.”

Announced in a tweet by CoinDesk, the first bitcoin cash block was mined at 2:14am on 2 August (EST). Since then, 24 more blocks have been mined (at the date of writing).

The value of bitcoin dropped from US$2,854 to $2,729 on the day of the fork, and bitcoin cash already has a market value of US$7 billion, according to Mr Davidson.

“And its great news from a financial perspective for all bitcoin holders as everyone who held their own bitcoins before the chain split or fork, now have an equal amount of bitcoin cash coins also,” he said.

Successful blockchain trial for bank guarantees

ANZ and Westpac have teamed with IBM and shopping centre operator Scentre Group and have now successfully digitised the bank guarantee process used for commercial property leasing.

The trial used Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) to eliminate the need for current paper-based bank guarantee documents, resulting in a single source of information with reduced potential for fraud and increased efficiency.

The partners involved in the trial have today released a whitepaper detailing how the solution worked and how it could be used in other situations that rely on bank guarantees.

In addition to eliminating the need for physical document management, the trial also addressed other inefficiencies in the current bank guarantee process, including the challenges in tracking and reporting of a guarantee’s status through multiple changes.

This forms part of a broader plan to build a shared solution with the rest of the industry, and to invite other organisations to participate in a larger pilot.

Commenting on the successful trial, Mark Bloom, Chief Financial Officer at Scentre Group, said: “An update of the decades-old process for issuing, tracking and claiming on guarantees is long overdue.

“With approximately 11,500 retailers across Australia and New Zealand, who use guarantees to support rental obligations, manual tracking of guarantees has been an extremely cumbersome and labour intensive process.”

Nigel Dobson, General Manager Wholesale Digital, Digital Banking at ANZ, said: “We have been keen to avoid the hype surrounding blockchain and distributed ledger technologies, and instead focused on practical and deliverable use cases.

“This proof of concept demonstrates how we can collaborate with our partners to develop a digital solution for customers, which also has the potential for industry-wide adoption.”

Andrew McDonald, General Manager Corporate and Institutional Banking at Westpac, said: “This is about removing the cost of fraud, error and operational risk that will continue as long as bank guarantees remain paper-based and manually issued.

“Next steps involve encouraging all industry players to adopt this technology so we can better protect and save money for our customers. Beyond that there is no reason why this couldn’t be applied across other industries.”

Dr. Joanna Batstone, Vice President and Lab Director of IBM Research Australia, said: “Using an agile approach, IBM collaborated with ANZ to combine the bank’s deep knowledge of the industry and their partners, with IBM’s blockchain expertise.

“The business use case demonstrates the opportunity to lift efficiency and transparency for all parties involved. We believe blockchain can potentially drive productivity across all Australian industries.”

This blockchain trial used Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) powered by Hyperledger Fabric V1.0 – a blockchain framework and one of the Hyperledger projects hosted by The Linux Foundation. You can view the whitepaper.

What’s holding up the blockchain?

From The Conversation.

It’s not technology or regulation holding back the blockchain – software that stores and transfers value or data across the internet – we just haven’t figured out the next big use-case. Two reports released this week by the CSIRO’s Data61 not only inject some well-researched gravitas into the conversation, they also provide insight into why some of the major blockchain projects have stalled.

Since 2015, banks, regulators, tech giants and startups all over the world have raised billions of dollars to explore the blockchain.

But the only really successful, scaleable use of the blockchain remains cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Bitcoins currently trade at almost AU$4,000, with a total market equivalent to thirty times the GDP of Australia.

Think of the blockchain as a type of transparent spreadsheet or “public ledger”. When someone transfers a Bitcoin, for example, the transaction is verified by “miners”, encrypted and a “block” is added to the spreadsheet. Mining takes a lot of computing power, and so miners are incentivised to participate in the system with a reward of bitcoin.

It’s finding a way to put all these pieces together for purposes other than cryptocurrencies that has yet to be figured out.

Because of all the computing power required to verify and encrypt new blocks, running a blockchain network is expensive and consumes a lot of electricity. For this reason, a blockchain should only be used if it solves particular problems. For example, a blockchain could allow users to see each other’s ledgers and transactions, negating the need for a trusted third party to manage risk. The blockchain itself, through sophisticated cryptography, would provide privacy and trust.

Conversely, if there is already a central third party managing trust between users and verifying transactions (something banks already do for consumers), then a blockchain is probably not needed at all. Failing that, a sophisticated database or expert system would be a cheaper and simpler alternative.

Opportunities and risks

The Data61 reports describe some of the possible opportunities for the blockchain in Australia, including monitoring the outbreak of pests or animal and plant diseases, border surveillance, tracking intellectual property, and identity systems that provide greater certainty over entitlements, benefits, and tax obligations. The reports also identify some of the risks.

The risks include both business and technical risks. For example, public ledgers do not afford privacy and blockchains generally are not suitable for storing large volumes of high speed data. Bitcoin’s blockchain has been suffering from this very problem for more than a year. Finding a solution is a priority for any developers wanting to attract the number of users needed to make running a network profitable.

The use of blockchain in financial transactions also poses problems for compliance with anti-money laundering legislation, which requires that anyone providing financial services (for example) must satisfy themselves as to the identity of their client or customer.

These shortcomings may explain why a number of high-profile blockchain projects have recently stalled. For example, last week, the Bank of Canada announced that its blockchain project, Jasper, is not yet fit to handle settlements. Citing transparency and privacy issues, the bank found that the benefits of using blockchain did not outweigh the risks.

But risk is not the only reason that blockchain projects are stalling.

In February 2017, the R3CEV consortium of banks and technologists announced after more than 18 months of investment, innovation, and testing, that they would not be using blockchain for their project because they did not need it.

Meanwhile, in a speech delivered to the Africa Blockchain Conference in March 2017, Andreas Antonopoulos warned that many recent “blockchain” projects are fraudulent attempts to raise capital under the guise of innovation and disruptive technologies.

The blockchain’s holy grail

While bitcoin has proven what the blockchain can do, the technology still needs a killer app to justify the hype. The most likely contender is currently a “smart contract”. Smart contracts are programmable transactions with complex internal logic that can interact with internet-enabled devices and other smart contracts.

At this time, the problem with smart contracts is that they are susceptible to manipulation. What is needed to test the capacity of the blockchain is a small-scale low-stakes low-risk smart contract that (for example) regulates energy consumption, manages permissions, or ensures payment on supply.

Data61’s Smart Contracts Report lists some contenders, but first we need to manage the risk of fraud, breach of privacy, and blockchain bloat. Once these risks have been reduced to nil or negligible, the real work can resume.

Author: Philippa Ryan, Lecturer in Civil Practice and Commercial Equity, University of Technology Sydney

Thinking Small Can Help Blockchain Graduate From The Lab To The Real World

From S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Blockchain holds the promise to remove trusted third parties from transactions by creating a global network of peers that verify and record transactions on a shared ledger. While this represents a monumental shift in the way the financial system works, it will be a series of small changes and implementations that gets us there.

A partnership between Citigroup Inc. and Nasdaq Inc., which was announced at CoinDesk’s 2017 Consensus conference, gives insight into what it takes to bring a blockchain solution from the lab into the real world.

The partnership leverages Chain Core technology to connect Citi’s treasury and payments platform to Linq, Nasdaq’s private market blockchain platform. Citi created CitiConnect for Blockchain, which will allow Citi to seamlessly process payments for transactions in private company securities completed on the Nasdaq platform. Both products were built using Chain Core technology.

This partnership is not a research project or proof-of-concept. It is a real, live, platform operating at this very moment to settle cash securities transactions on the blockchain.

Instead of building an entire distributed network, like many blockchain evangelists want to see, Citi chose to use blockchain as a bridge. Connecting Citi’s current treasury infrastructure to Nasdaq’s Linq platform is an incremental step that allows Citi to see how a real blockchain network performs. This is step one in a potentially larger roll-out. While Nasdaq is the only current partner on the CitiConnect for Blockchain platform, the product is able to connect multiple blockchains to Citi’s treasury department.

Morgan McKenney, head of Asia-Pacific treasury cash management and trade solutions at Citi, outlined three key components in developing a blockchain solution. First, it must solve a real customer problem. Second, the solution must be extensible, meaning it should be applicable to more than just the initial use case. Finally, the product needs to be something that can be implemented within a year, according to McKenney.

How the blockchain will transform housing markets

From The Conversation.

An emerging technology, blockchain, could transform the way we buy and sell real estate by doing away with the hidden costs and inefficiencies of our housing markets.

Blockchain is an online ledger that records transactions. It’s capable of recording the movement of any kind of asset from one owner to the next.

It’s public and isn’t owned by any one corporation, there are no charges to record transactions. Its openness ensures the integrity of transactions and ownership, as everyone involved has a stake in keeping it honest.

This means there are fewer intermediaries; less middle-men who increase the costs and time to complete a transaction.

There are risks associated with the system as it’s only as strong as the code that supports it, which has come under attack in the past. Despite this, examples from overseas show it is possible to apply this technology successfully to our housing market.

Problems in how the property market is run

For buyers able to find the right property, secure a mortgage and save a deposit, they must also pay for a range of so-called “hidden costs”. These are additional payments associated with the transaction over the cost of the home itself. Many legal and title-related costs would become near-obsolete in a blockchain system.

The combined costs of title registration, title insurance, and legal fees associated with register the property transfer approach A$1,000 on the average Australian house. Costs continue to rise as the prudent buyer undertakes further due diligence, through building inspection documentation, previous sales records and so forth.

On top of the financial cost, it then typically takes over a month to settle a real estate transaction in Australia. The blockchain system can speed things up, as currently tedious checks undertaken by hand, move to an automated system overseen and approved by the relevant stakeholders.

There is also the risk that land titles offices with a single database simply get things wrong too. In 2016 it was reported that 300 incorrect certificates had been issued in NSW, with 140 of those being recent property buyers affected by government plans for major motorways in Sydney’s west.

There are now concerns that the system’s quality could be compromised in several states, including NSW and South Australia, as land titles offices become privatised.

A blockchain real estate market

If blockchain were applied to the property market in Australia, every property would be encoded with a unique identifier. Property IDs already exist in most land registry systems, so these would need to be migrated to a blockchain.

Next, the blockchain ecosystem then needs to have defined who the people behind the transaction are, those stakeholders that include the owner, lender, and government.

Transactions of property are conducted via “smart contracts” – digital rules in the blockchain that process the agreement and any specified conditions. Buying and selling could still take place via agents, or the smart contract can be advanced to incorporate the sale rules and make this decision automatically. The blockchain for each property grows as transactions are added to the ledger.

A housing market without agents, conveyancers and a land-titles office may seem decades away, but a handful of countries have already piloted blockchain land registration system.

In Australia, our current land titles system is among the world’s best, but it is not infallible. A range of hidden taxes and transaction costs increase market inefficiencies.

And while the electronic system Property Exchange Australia or PEXA, has brought us to the point of a near paperless property market, it’s still an intermediary between the parties and the record of the transfer in the Torrens system – our current land title system.

The added advantage of a blockchain system is in eliminating risks, in particular the risk of records being accessed fraudulently and altered or deleted because it is a permanent and immutable record. This means that a huge amount of computing power would be required, probably along with some collusion, and the alteration is easily detected across the ledger. That’s not to say the blockchain system is perfect.

Blockchain’s advantage in restricting any changes to historical records becomes a disadvantage when incorrect or fraudulent entries are added. Digital currency managers, Ether and Bitfinex, learned this the hard way through cyber attacks.

Last year these attacks siphoned off over US$50 million in ether tokens from The DAO, the largest crowdfunded venture capital fund. This breach led to a controversial split of Ether into two separate active digital currencies.

Only months later, Hong Kong-based crytocurrency trading firm, Bitfinex, had the equivalent of US$68 million stolen by hackers in a security breach reminiscent of the hack that bought down Mt Gox in 2014. It is little comfort to cautious market regulators that the thieves behind these attacks can not spend it without revealing their identity on the blockchain.

These hacks demonstrate that blockchain systems are only as secure as the code which supports them. As a nascent technology, its cracks are detected only when they are exposed.

Where blockchain has worked before

Sweden became the first western country to explore the use of blockchain for real estate in July last year. At the time, the Swedish Land Registry partnered with blockchain startup ChromaWay to test how parties to a real estate transaction – the buyer, seller, lender, government – could track the deal’s progress on a blockchain.

Other countries at the forefront of blockchain for real estate include The Republic of Georgia, Honduras, and Brazil which announced a pilot program earlier this month. While this might seem like a disparate list, it’s in these countries where the long-term potential of a blockchain for real estate are most significant.

Systemic corruption and insecure database management in these countries, and many other emerging economies, is seen as a major constraint on growth and prosperity. Why would you invest in a house, or any other asset, if there is a distinct possibility that the record of your ownership could simply disappear?

With ever increasing demands for improvements to transaction efficiency and local real estate industry giants like CoreLogic appointing research teams dedicated to new technology applications, it might not be long before we see a real estate blockchain system in Australia.

Author: Danika Wright, Lecturer in Finance, University of Sydney

The blockchain could help advertisers lock up our attention

From The Conversation.

While technology has been making more devices “smart”, and we carry phones with all sorts of sensors, these haven’t yet been systematically applied to advertising’s central problem – engagement. The blockchain, however, will make advertising much smarter.

Traditional advertising – think of posters on bus stops and TV commercials – is easy to ignore and its effectiveness is hard to measure. Even online advertising has problems measuring engagement. But with the blockchain, advertisers will be able to tap into the data in our devices, automatically pull together multiple sources of information, and even offer rewards to consumers.

What is the blockchain again?

Think of the blockchain as a kind of a public spreadsheet. This spreadsheet is stored simultaneously on a bunch of different computers and is encrypted.

When someone transfers a Bitcoin (or anything else you’re trading on the blockchain) the transaction is verified by all of the computers, encrypted and added to the spreadsheet, where everyone can see. The encryption and transparency are what make the system secure.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, such as Ripple XRP and Ether, sit on top of the blockchain. They can be used as currencies, transferred between people just like normal money. Or they can be used as a kind of token, the transfer recorded to signify when something has been exchanged.

A computer program known as a smart contract has evolved out of this system. It can execute specific actions when predefined conditions within the blockchain are fulfilled – such as automatically paying a farmer when crops are delivered. But smart contracts could also have huge implications for advertising.

Advertising is going to be more complex

Advertising in the age of blockchains and smart contracts will be something more like an ecosystem. Information and value will flow and be captured in numerous directions. Using smart contracts, many different entities and data streams will be brought together.

Let’s imagine Jane sees an advertisement for a pair of shoes on her smartphone. The advertiser asks that, in exchange for Bitcoin, she reveal her identity by turning on her camera and taking a selfie. She must also allow the advertiser to access her SIM and verify with the phone company that it is indeed Jane who owns the phone. The advertiser would also like to know where Jane is located using the Google Maps application on her phone.

Individually, none of these actions are new. What will be new is having a smart contract to tie it all together.

At the initiation of this advertising effort, the parties involved in the smart contract are Jane, the advertiser, the phone company and Google. A predefined reward (in the form of Bitcoin) promised by the advertiser will be released to Jane only once all parties fulfil their part of the contract. Jane must take a selfie and send it to the advertiser, the phone company must confirm with the advertiser that Jane indeed owns the phone used to take the selfie and Google must release Jane’s location to the advertiser.

There are a few implications from this example.

Consumers like Jane will now be empowered to choose whether they want to give up their privacy in exchange for something. Jane could choose to block Google Maps from revealing her location, for example.

Advertisers will know exactly how consumers interact with their ads. By specifying actions for Jane to perform, like taking a selfie after watching an ad, advertisers will overcome the crucial problem of not being able to verify whether people are actually paying attention.

They will also know whether consumers have adhered to every part of the agreement. If Jane does not allow Google Maps to reveal her location, the advertiser will be aware of this and may release only some of her reward. This is an efficient and cost-effective method of piecing together the profiles of customers.

Finally, the blockchain will enable advertisers to capture value they could not previously, because they could not track or measure interaction with ads.

For example, let’s say the advertiser’s request is more ambitious, and Jane decides to reveal she is using a cab from company X and dropping by cafe Y to pick up a latte before going to the shoe store. The original advertisement has now generated value not only for the advertiser but also for those other entities.

Using the blockchain means all parties will have access to information about what happened. The advertiser could collaborate with other companies like cab company X and cafe Y to boost business. They could even demand those companies chip in to cover the costs.

A few years off

At this point we must go through a reality check.

While some parts of this picture are already being experimented with – Nasdaq has built a marketplace to buy and sell advertising on a blockchain, and others are building the tokens to sit on top – technologically and politically we are still sorely lacking.

There are also many digital blind spots that, like missing links among security cameras, allow some actions to go unobserved and unaccounted for during the advertising process.

But it is possible that in the future, once the infrastructure and our societies have caught up, every digital device will be connected to a blockchain-like system so that all digital actions are accounted for. When that happens, advertisers won’t know what hit them.

Author: Eric T.K. Lim, Senior Lecturer in Information Systems, UNSW; Chee-Wee Tan, Professor in IT Management, Copenhagen Business School

Standards Australia releases Roadmap for Blockchain Standards

Standards Australia has released its Roadmap for Blockchain Standards.

The Roadmap is designed to: identify the various technical issues associated with developing, governing and utilising blockchains and Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT); identify blockchain and DLT use-cases relevant to Australia; and prioritise the order of standards development activities that could be undertaken in the development of blockchain standards by ISO/TC 307 Blockchain and electronic distributed ledger technologies.

Standards Australia facilitated the development of a Roadmap for Blockchain Standards between November 2016 and February 2017. The work represents a key component of Standards Australia’s role in supporting the development of a collective Australian position on blockchain standards priorities and contributing to the establishment of industry, consumer and market confidence in the use and application of blockchain technologies.

The report was produced as a result of a series of consultations held in 2016 and 2017 which enabled industry, consumer, academic and government stakeholders to identify and priorities the relevant international standards that may be required to support the broad use and application of blockchain and DLT.

The report explains the methodology and process used by Standards Australia to develop a Roadmap for Blockchain Standards. It highlights the critical role Australia will have in leading international efforts to develop blockchain standards under ISO/TC 307 Blockchain and electronic distributed ledger technologies.

Blockchain has the potential to support efficient and secure real time transactions across a large number of sectors. From enabling efficient and accurate financial services to providing visibility along the supply chain, and from streamlining government services to delivering confidence in identity accuracy to consumers,blockchain and DLTs have the capacity to revolutionise the way we do business.

For many Australians and global stakeholders the key to utilising blockchain technologies is contingent upon the performance of the systems. While economic efficiencies, improvements in standards of living and increased access are just some of the benefits of applying blockchain technologies, there is a broad community expectation that an appropriate legal and standards framework will be developed in order to establish market confidence.

The work included a survey of Australian government, industry, academic/research and consumer organisations. More than 100 responses to the survey were received. The finance sector was well represented.

Within the financial services sector, there is potential for use of blockchain technologies to support:
• Digital Currencies
• Trade Finance
• Remittances
• Commodity Exchange
• Other transactions
Use Cases need to be developed.

The survey also identified propriety government services which might leverage blockchain. Land Transfers and Property Titles rated the highest.

Blockchain and others will transform financial advice

From Australian Fintech.

The potential for distributed ledger and associated technologies has fundamental, long-term ramifications for financial planning businesses. Planners need to be across these innovations now so that when commercial solutions that use these technologies hit the market, their businesses are ready to embrace them.

Distributed ledger technology is a way of recording information that makes it easy to verify. Blockchain, which is the system that records how the virtual currency Bitcoin is stored, is one application of this technology.

Shortened Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) transaction settlement times will likely be the first real change to the market from Blockchain. Last year, the ASX invested $14.9 million to acquire 5 per cent of US-based distributed ledger technology business Digital Asset Holdings to start working on Blockchain solutions for its business. Subsequently, the ASX shortened settlement times for trades made through the exchange from three days to two.

This will improve market liquidity, reduce the cost of trading and minimise paperwork. An ASX spokesperson has confirmed an update on its Blockchain development will be included in its half-year results announcement in February.

“We’ll provide an update on our development then. In the meantime, we’re engaging extensively with stakeholders,” he said.

Tim Lea, chief executive of innovative technology company Veredictum.io says Blockchain will also streamline the conveyancing process.

“It can take up to 15 weeks to complete a property settlement now. There are use cases for Blockchain being developed that will enable automatic registration of a property’s title to an immutable ledger, which means a substantial reduction in legal work.

“There are use cases internationally being tested that put all property registrations on the Blockchain. The state of Georgia in the former Soviet Union is doing a pilot to put all property online in the form of an immutable database that cannot be altered.”

Lea says any information that needs to be formally confirmed and identified naturally fits into the Blockchain remit.

“Anything that requires provenance, a look at the history of the asset, can very clearly be defined within a Blockchain-based structure.”

Robo advice on steroids

Blockchain is far from the only emerging technology that will affect financial advice. Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) is another game-changer for the sector.

Lea calls it, “the world’s largest crowd-funding campaign that nobody’s every heard of. They raised US$168 million in 30 days on the basis of a 28-page white paper in June last year.”

The idea was to challenge the notion of a traditional company with a board and management structure and replace it with computer code.

Is Blockchain the Next Great Hope — or Hype?

From Knowledge@Wharton.

Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin may have captured the public’s fancy – and also engendered a healthy dose of skepticism — but it is their underlying technology that is proving to be of practical benefit to organizations: the blockchain. Many industries are exploring its benefits and testing its limitations, with financial services leading the way as firms eye potential windfalls in the blockchain’s ability to improve efficiency in such things as the trading and settlement of securities. The real estate industry also sees potential in the blockchain to make homes — even portions of homes — and other illiquid assets trade and transfer more easily. The blockchain is seen as disrupting global supply chains as well, by boosting transaction speed across borders and improving transparency.

These uses are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg for a nascent technology whose development stage has been compared to the early years of the internet. “We’re very early in the game,” said Brad Bailey, research director of capital markets at Celent, at a recent Blockchain Opportunity Summit in New York. He likened the blockchain’s current status to the web of the early 1990s, heralding a coming wave of new ideas and uses. “This will impact the world.”

The blockchain technology came about initially as a way to verify bitcoin transactions online and to enable two parties to transact business without having to know or trust each other. It was designed without a central authority in mind, such as a bank or government, to oversee transactions. Essentially, the blockchain is a shared virtual public ledger where encrypted transactions are confirmed by outside parties. In the bitcoin world, these outside parties are called “miners” — computers that solve complex mathematical problems to confirm transactions and earn fees. Confirmed transactions are placed in a “block” and added to the chain. Since the ledger is shared by everyone on the network, it is thought to be nearly impossible to remove or change the data – a premise that turned out to be false in some cases.

Today, the concept of the blockchain has expanded beyond its use by cryptocurrencies. Instead, the benefits of the shared ledger and its seemingly immutable record of transactions accessible to multiple parties are being explored by a variety of industries. Experts said there won’t be a “mother blockchain,” but multiple ledgers with different purposes. Varying versions of blockchains have popped up, too: While the original bitcoin blockchain was open to anyone, some companies’ blockchains are private and “permissioned” — they restrict access to approved parties. The latter approach is preferred by companies fearful of being hit with government fines and lawsuits if they get hacked, said summit participant Sarab Sokhey, chief technology leader of new product innovations at Verizon Wireless. They’ll stay private until the technology matures and industry standards are set.

While the blockchain’s business applications are clear, it has social implications as well. For instance, it can create identities for individuals apart from those sanctioned by governments and not limited by geographic boundaries. The blockchain also allows less-technologically advanced nations to participate in global transactions more easily. “Blockchains are exciting, undoubtedly,” said Saikat Chaudhuri, executive director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management, which was an official partner for the summit. “It’s much more than about transaction efficiency or flexibility. It’s really beyond that. It could provide an identity to those who don’t have it, or promote financial inclusion. Therein lies the power of this whole thing.”

‘Nervous’ Financial Institutions

According to a survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value and the Economist Intelligence Unit, one in seven companies it calls “trailblazers” expect to have blockchains in production and at commercial scale in 2017. Respondents were interested in taking advantage of the blockchain’s multiple benefits, which include cost reduction, immutability of records, transparency of transactions and the potential to create new business models. For example, the blockchain would eliminate the need for keeping multiple records at banks and other parties doing currency trades. The survey tracked responses of 200 global financial markets institutions.

The survey also said “trailblazers” were focusing their efforts on the following business areas: clearing and settlements, wholesale payments, equity and debt issuance and reference data. The report added that in recent years, financial institutions have “swarmed to blockchain pilots and proofs of concept” — opening innovation labs, holding hackathons, partnering with financial technology startups, joining consortia and collaborating with regulators.

To be sure, banks have a vested interest in participating. “Banks provide essentially escrow services for the transfer of value, and here comes a technology that threatens to eliminate that service,” said Chris Ballinger, global chief officer of strategic innovation at Toyota Financial Services. “So they are nervous about that, because it’s a huge revenue stream” that could be taken away. How? “With the blockchain, you can run a network that transfers value among untrusted nodes, and therefore you can eliminate the middle man and you can eliminate all the costs associated with the middle man,” he said. “You’re essentially turning assets into something like cash that you can hand to somebody and they will accept. That makes the transfer of assets extremely efficient.”

Another unique benefit of the blockchain is that it separates someone’s identity from the transaction they’re making. In general, a blockchain uses a digital signature – not real names and other personal information – that is activated by a private key or secret code held by the one doing the transaction. Compare that to current credit card or bank transactions, which tie one’s personal information such as a name and address to purchases and other financial activities. This separation improves the security of one’s data. “Today, the payments information and identity are [bound] together. The combined is a tempting honey pot for hackers,” Ballinger said. “By separating the financial information from the identity, there’s no honey pot, no central place to hack, no incentive to go after.”

In December 2015, Nasdaq executed its first trade on a blockchain, through its Linq ledger. The exchange said the blockchain promises to expedite trade clearing and settlement – all the steps needed to transfer the asset from seller to buyer including recording the transaction — from three days to as little as 10 minutes. That’s because the trades remove many manual processes and bypass third parties. As such, “settlement risk exposure can be reduced by over 99%, dramatically lowering capital costs and systemic risk,” according to Nasdaq. Other stock exchanges tinkering with the blockchain include ones in Australia, Myanmar, Germany, Japan, Korea, London and Toronto.

Overstock.com is on the cusp of issuing its first security using the blockchain. “We are in the process of proving out the first public trading of a blockchain security,” said Ralph Daiuto, Jr., general counsel of tØ, a subsidiary of the e-commerce retailer. While the company has kept its clearing firm, it is using digital wallets for the actual transfer of assets in settlement of the trade. “The goal is to shorten the settlement cycle and [avoid] all the ills that can go wrong with that cycle.” He added that the company can cut its equity trading costs by 70% using the blockchain.

Overstock got regulatory approval for its blockchain trade by taking “incremental steps in proving out the technology in use cases and demonstrating we have real-world application for this blockchain technology,” Daiuto said. “It literally has been a monthly, if not a weekly, education process with our core regulators.” It has taken nearly two years of laying the groundwork for Overstock to get to this point.

Real Estate and Smart Contracts

An area of particular promise for the blockchain is the real estate market. “The blockchain solves pretty much every problem in real estate that we have” in terms of fraud, middleman fees and friction, opaque due diligence, slow price discovery, complex transaction process and other ills, said Ragnar Lifthrasir, president of the International Blockchain Real Estate Association. “In many ways, our technology is still in the 17th century – notaries still use seals.” The blockchain promises to simplify and speed up the process while adding transparency to the records.

For example, in selling a house, people still sign paper deeds over to the new owner. It has to be entered into the public record, which means someone physically has to go to the local government office. “It’s a paper-based system that is ripe for fraud,” Lifthrasir said. The blockchain solution is fairly straightforward, using digital deeds. “When I want to transfer the property, I simply transfer it from my wallet to the buyer’s wallet.”

As for putting the property ownership on the public record, he said the list is already on the blockchain so recording it won’t be hard. Lifthrasir added that validation of ownership would be strengthened. “It’s very difficult to deny who owns the property when it’s on a public network.” His startup, Velox, is working with Cook County in Chicago to use the blockchain for transferring and recording property titles. It is also working on a way to show liens on titles on the blockchain.

Within a blockchain, so-called “smart” contracts could be revolutionary. “They programmatically represent a contract,” said Mark Smith, CEO of Symbiont and co-chair of the Smart Contract Council. For example, a smart contract on an auto loan could be linked in real time to payments made by the car buyer. If he misses payments, the contract gets wind of the violation and starts the repossession process. In Delaware, Smith’s company is working with the state to create “smart” records of its public archives to do such things as being able to sunset themselves.

EY’s Australian operations piloted a real estate blockchain ecosystem that is now being used in the market to trade full, and even fractional, ownership of properties. Real estate and financial institutions approved by EY all liked the idea of using a blockchain, but when it came to actual implementation, “fear and uncertainty crept in,” said James Roberts, partner and Australian blockchain leader. EY had to essentially guarantee verification of participants and transactions to build trust. “We decided we would solve the identity problem [of people and institutions]. We would build trust into the system and prove recordkeeping is true and accurate and can be used to transact financial instruments like property or debt.”

EY’s blockchain ecosystem goes through several stages. First, individuals using the blockchain have to be validated using identity checks and even biometrics. They create records on the blockchain using randomly generated unique keys that let EY do further checking against various databases from the government and elsewhere. Next, the transaction is traded on a blockchain exchange. The assets being traded are verified. The entire ecosystem is private and permissioned. Also, EY stores individuals’ unique keys offline for security. Moreover, EY built back-system administrative functions – despite the premise of the blockchain as not having a central authority – to make participants more comfortable in using the system. But to be a viable ecosystem, it needs to scale. “We need millions and millions of people in our system, and that’s going to take a lot of effort,” Roberts said.

Challenges and Risks

Security is still the biggest challenge confronting the blockchain. “The truth is, once you give someone access to a network, many times, more often than not, they can end up very easily getting blanket access to that network,” said Joe Ventura, CEO of AlphaPoint. “This is a huge security problem.” However, if one ends up building many protections to prevent hacks, then it bogs down the blockchain and defeats its purpose in the first place. “Basically, you have to jump through so many hoops simply to pass the message from some party to another party.”

And while blockchain records theoretically can’t be changed, there are ways around that. Smith cited a recent controversial decision by the Ethereum Foundation – the organization behind the open-source cryptocurrency Ethereum – after a hacker exploited a software flaw and took funds. The foundation decided to roll back the clock to give people their money back and created two versions of the ledger. “Imagine if you’re a business and they roll back a day,” Ventura said. “That’s completely unacceptable.” Moreover, by creating two versions, some people were able to exploit it. “People were able to double their money,” Smith said.

As for compliance, at least regulators could have a node on the blockchain itself in which companies define their access to data, said Sandeep Kumar, managing director of Synechron. As such, regulators wouldn’t have to wait days for a bank to hand over documents for compliance. “They can see it as it is happening.”

In the end, each company has to figure out whether a blockchain is suitable. “Is it a blockchain use case or is it a database use case?” said Tyler Mulvihill, director of Consensys. “If you are a company that has a lot of information internally and you don’t transact like a lot of vendors, and not a lot of people need to use your information or do business with you, a database can be fine for a lot of things. It’s when you have a lot of parties that need trust, need access to certain information and need to be audited – that’s where I see the biggest use cases.”

Centrelink data-matching problems show the need for a government blockchain

From The Conversation.

Governments across the globe are experimenting with the blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, as a way to reduce costs and provide more accountability to the public. In Europe alone, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and Estonia are experimenting with blockchains to fight corruption and deliver public services.

Australia, too, is looking at what a blockchain might achieve. The recent problems with Centrelink’s automated data-matching system show precisely where a government blockchain would fit in.

Rather than siloing our data in government agencies, we could create a single source of information. This would speed up our interactions with government, while reducing errors and fraud.

What is a blockchain?

The blockchain is a kind of public database, one stored simultaneously on a bunch of different computers. When a new transaction occurs it is verified (otherwise known as “mining” or “consensus”), encrypted and added to the database.

The most famous example of the blockchain is Bitcoin, a crypto-currency built upon the blockchain. However, the blockchain is suitable for many other applications, not just financial transactions. For example, the blockchain could be used to authenticate that a diamond has not come from an illict source, or for buying and selling property.

A government blockchain

For the government’s purposes, the killer feature of the blockchain is that it is a way to record transactions so that they are transparent and cannot be altered or tampered with. When used to track fish through a supply chain, for instance, it allows customers and restaurants to follow where the fish has been and have confidence in the data.

When applied to a government context, these capabilities could be useful for collecting tax, delivering benefits, or regulating business. From the public’s point of view, this could enable us to track government spending, eliminate fraudulent transactions, reduce errors in data processing and speed up service delivery to almost real time. It could be useful almost anywhere records are kept.

All the while the public could be more confident about the accuracy and integrity of the data being held.

In practice

The Australian government makes benefit payments and provides support services through Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support services. It also collects information through numerous other agencies, such as the Australian Tax Office. A government blockchain could record the transactions about a citizen and link together information about health, welfare and child support.

The information would be entered only once into the blockchain by any one of these agencies. There would be no need for the data to be re-entered or matched again. Thus errors that occur in data processing as information is passed on down the line will be eliminated, avoiding some of the issues with the current Centrelink system.

Further, once data is entered it cannot be altered or changed in any way without proper authentication. Any authorised officer within the government could then access the information in the blockchain, avoiding a paper-pushing exercise between government departments. All of your data would be in one place.

We could go even further, as the blockchain would also allow other services to be processed through an app, as the UK is trialling with welfare payments.

The overall cost savings, reduction in bureaucracy and increased responsiveness to helping people in need could be immense. All we need is the government to invest in its own blockchain.

The challenge is making it legitimate

The essence of a blockchain is to reduce the reliance on centralised systems (such as the government), replacing it with a system with inherent accountability, transparency and trust. The original blockchain concept achieved this by being open, like the internet (also known as unpermissioned), relying on independent, anonymous “miners” to validate transactions. This guarantees the integrity of the data as no-one knows who the miners are to bribe or bully them into underhanded actions.

However, some might view a government-run, “permissioned” blockchain with suspicion. The trust of the public would need to be gained. A government blockchain would not be open, and we would have to rely on the government to approve all of the transactions. This negates some of the benefit offered by a blockchain. The legitimacy and trust would have to come from the government itself.

Thus a government-run blockchain would not be without its challenges. But if an Australian government blockchain is developed and allowed to succeed, then the potential benefits could be enormous. Society as we know it will be disrupted!

Author: Christine Helliar, Professor School of Commerce, University of South Australia