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US Government Hacks Global Bank System, Necessity of Bitcoin

US Government Hacks Global Bank System, Necessity of Bitcoin

The US government’s ongoing extensive surveillance

on the global banking system and payment, transfers are demonstrating an urgent necessity of a decentralized financial network such as bitcoin. Over the past few months, various organizations including Wikileaks and Shadow Brokers have exploited most of the malpractices of the National Security Agency of the US. One of the recent tools of the NSA that was leaked and exploited on the dark web was the NSA’s surveillance tool on the Swift global banking system.

Motive of the US Government

Government agencies and law enforcement are required to undergo a lengthy process of filing a complaint and request to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (Swift) in order to gain necessary financial information of certain bank accounts of businesses and individuals.

With a surveillance and hacking tool, however, the NSA can surpass the above-mentioned process by simply gaining access to the actual Swift network without alarming its system and infrastructure. According to representatives of Shadow Brokers, a hacking group that has leaked many pieces of malware in the past, the hacking tool of the NSA allows the US government to surveil financial transactions settled within the Swift network with full transparency. Matt Suiche, founder of the United Arab Emirates-based cyber security firm Comae Technologies, said in an interview with Reuters:

“If you hack the service bureau, it means that you also have access to all of their clients, all of the banks.”

While some security analysts and firms including EastNets denied the claims of Shadow Brokers, prominent whistleblowers and security experts including Edward Snowden explained that if the exploitation of the NSA hacking tool by the security firm Shadow Brokers is in fact, true, it could be described as the “Mother of All Exploits.” In the meantime, Swift announced that its cyber security and research team were not able to find any evidence to conclusively determine the surveillance allegation against the US government.

“We have no evidence to suggest that there has ever been any unauthorized access to our network or messaging services,” said the representatives of Swift.

Necessity of Bitcoin

Whether the US government actually utilized the NSA’s hacking tool to surveil the Swift network without permission from Swift and its clients is not the major issue. The main problem is that such hacking tools exist and they are capable of unraveling transactions settled across the world. Any centralized financial networks such as Swift impose such vulnerability, as any network, server or database connected to the Internet is vulnerable to hacking attacks, surveillance and data breaches if it is not designed to be immutable or decentralized, unlike bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Each transaction on the bitcoin blockchain is identified with cryptographic proof and it can be accessed on the bitcoin blockchain. Most importantly, because the bitcoin blockchain is public, it cannot be manipulated by a government agency like the NSA with sophisticated hacking tools. Although there exists strict Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Know Your Customer systems in place on the majority of the world’s bitcoin and cryptocurrency exchanges, government agencies and law enforcement agents must go through proper channels to obtain the data.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

Alan Zibluk Market Hive Founding Member

What Is a Bitcoin Worth?

What Is a Bitcoin Worth?

The virtual currency has seen its value soar in recent years.

  

Bitcoin has existed for less than a decade,

but it has achieved amazing popularity across the globe, and its value has risen along with its use. Shortly after its creation in 2009, one could buy the virtual currency for less than a penny per bitcoin. Now, a bitcoin is worth about $1,250, and many believe that the upward trend for bitcoin could continue indefinitely. Despite there being plenty of skepticism about the inherent value of bitcoin, the currency has survived dramatic volatility without losing favor among its core users.

The history of bitcoin's value

During the first couple of years of its existence, bitcoin saw dramatic gains in price. From its penny valuation in 2009, bitcoin rose to $0.10 by 2010 and first hit the $1 mark in early 2011. That ignited a huge wave of new demand for bitcoin, sending the currency up to more than $10 by mid-2011. Yet at that point, bitcoin showed its propensity for big ups and downs. Within just a few months, bitcoin prices dropped 80%, punishing those who had gotten in at the top and were looking for quick gains. Still, those who stuck with bitcoin earned back their losses, with the currency reaching the $10 mark again in late 2012.

From there, the next wave of interest in bitcoin took the currency to the $100 mark and beyond, climbing to nearly $200 by early 2013. The bankruptcy of the Mt. Gox bitcoin exchange briefly took a big toll on prices, cutting bitcoin's value in half, but before the year was out, the digital currency climbed above $1,000 as market participants increasingly believed that bitcoin would achieve global currency status and prove to be a better alternative to traditional government-issued currency. The frequency of financial crises across the globe during the first several years of bitcoin's history certainly helped feed that theory and added to bitcoin's appeal.

Since then, bitcoin has remained volatile, but not to the same extent as it was earlier in its existence. Prices sank to around $200 in 2015, but the currency picked up steam again more recently. This year, bitcoin regained the $1,000 level and has climbed as high as nearly $1,300.

The true measure of bitcoin's worth

One concern that some have expressed about bitcoin is that the currency has no intrinsic value. Gold coins, by contrast, represent a given weight of an actual commodity with practical applications, and gold investors take comfort in the fact that their bullion is worth something beyond monetary terms. That's not true of bitcoin, which one receives as a reward for solving complex mathematical problems.

Yet bitcoin advocates note that the same is true of paper currency. It used to be that Federal Reserve notes were tied to the value of gold or silver, but those days are long gone. Just as a dollar bill only has whatever value a buyer and seller assign to it, so too does bitcoin have practical value to the extent that those who make exchanges of the digital currency agree on what it's worth.

One reason why bitcoin has become more valuable likely has to do with the fact that one can use it more widely now than early in its history. Many major technologies and retail companies accept bitcoin in the same way they would older currencies, and small businesses have jumped on the bitcoin bandwagon as well. Moreover, with relatively low transaction fees for transfers, bitcoin has become a popular way to move money while avoiding the costly charges that banks and other financial institutions often impose.

Keep an eye on bitcoin

Bitcoin has seen dramatic price increases recently, but the one thing investors in the currency can be certain of is that volatility in both directions will continue. With some calling for continued exponential growth in the value of bitcoin while others believe it's a bubble waiting to burst, the market for bitcoin is sure to be exciting for the foreseeable future.

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Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

Alan Zibluk Market Hive Founding Member

Is a Lack of Regulation Stifling Bitcoin Growth?

Is a Lack of Regulation Stifling Bitcoin Growth?

  

Imperial College London’s Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering

Cathy Mulligan, co-director of Imperial College London’s Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering, believes a dearth of regulation is undermining new financial technologies. Although this might not come as welcome news to libertarian-minded bitcoiners, she believes uncertainty over regulations has stifled growth. “We have the situation in the UK where many startups are chasing the regulator to say, ‘How are we going to be regulated?’ rather than the other way round. Bitcoin in the UK is really treated as private money,” she recently opened. London Bitcoin industry insiders told CCN for this interview that they, and others, are anticipating further Bitcoin regulations in the UK in the coming months.

Ms. Mulligan cites confusing oversight, such as when one exchanges Bitcoin for pound sterling, in the UK,  there is no VAT on the value of the Bitcoin, but, rather, the commission. “From the UK perspective, we haven’t seen huge amounts of regulation,” she says. “They aren’t being forced to have AML [anti-money laundering regulations] or ‘know your customer’ regulation just yet. I think what will happen in Japan is, there will be an influx in startups because the business environment is stable and you’ll know how you’re going to regulate it.”

Indeed, regulators are worried about Bitcoin’s potential anonymity. “At Europol [the EU’s law enforcement agency] they don’t like the anonymity of Bitcoin, which I think perhaps is a bit of a misunderstanding because it is not truly anonymous,” said Eitan Jankelewitz, a lawyer at the law firm Sheridans who specializes in blockchain and e-commerce. She believes regulators should have fewer concerns. “You can trace every transaction and follow it all the way through,” she noted. “You can see the life of a penny and see exactly where it’s been. The problem is that you don’t know exactly who controls those wallets.” Much of the confusion circle around determining what, exactly, bitcoin constitutes.

Dr. Mulligan says: “Some countries are taking it as a commodity like we are, other places are treating it like money and others are treating it as unknown, which changes the way you tax things.” The Imperial College London’s Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering started early in January.

“Blockchain technology is poised to re-engineer the world as we know it,” said Blockchain at the time. “In fact, there is a general consensus that the technology will revolutionize industries as varied as finance, fashion, government, and healthcare, among others. While the technology offers a great deal of promise, it is in its nascent stages and there is still much to explore in understanding the future we’re helping build. It’s that perspective that keeps us committed to research and development. “

Many lawyers advise Bitcoin and blockchain startups to initiate strict AML and KYC policies, generally speaking, to ensure a smooth business process. To be sure, many Bitcoiners believe no new regulations are needed, and any pre-existing regulation can be applied to the digital currency. Oh, and then there’s those who believe there should be no regulations at all.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

Alan Zibluk Market Hive Founding Member

Geopolitics Bullish for Bitcoin

Geopolitics Bullish for Bitcoin

  

A recent debate about Bitcoin as a safehaven

against geopolitics is supported by consistent buying demand for the digital currency. Furthermore, at key junctures in the War on Terror, Bitcoin has increased precipitously, with its best-known price rises coming during heightened geopolitical conflict. For instance, Bitcoin’s first memorable price increase took place as a military conflict in Libya picked up. Recent events have been no different as, despite consistent discussion about concerns over the bitcoin technology itself, the price has increased. Geopolitical tension is on the rise worldwide, and Bitcoin has consistently reached all-time highs. Russia stopped a Security Council statement brought forth by the U.S. on Wednesday to express disapproval of North Korea’s missile tests. China signed off on the measure.

“Russia is slowing this down, and it is not clear why”. The diplomat told CBS News. “The U.S. wanted to get the message out.” North Korea’s failed missile test launch on Sunday mushroomed geopolitical tensions between President Donald Trump and Pyongyang. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that the U.S. remained committed to its allies but that it would overwhelmingly respond to any attack. The U.S. military intercepted two Russian bombers in international airspace off Alaska’s coast earlier this week, as two F-22 Raptor aircraft intercepted the Russian TU-95 Bear bombers. Navy Commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, called the intercept “safe and professional.” Further, U.S. economic data did little to encourage and confidence in the Trump administration on tax cuts have waned in recent weeks.

All this should be considered bullish for Bitcoin. Two months after U.S. military action in Libya, Bitcoin begins to increase from approx 90 cents to $32. The United Nations called for “an immediate ceasefire in Libya, including an end to the current attacks against civilians, which it said might constitute crimes against humanity … imposing a ban on all flights in the country’s airspace – a no-fly zone – and tightened sanctions on the Qadhafi regime and its supporters.” The price of Bitcoin fell to $4 by the end of 2011, as the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq thus ending the Iraq War on December 18. By the November 2015 Paris Attacks in France, which killed 139 and injured 352, the Bitcoin price had reached the 300 handle.

There’s been little to inspire confidence in global relations and economy. Since November 2015, the bitcoin price has increased beyond $1,000 and the gold price, further inspiring confidence in its possibilities as a safehaven medium. Gold and silver have long been considered safehavens by investors, who purchase such assets to protect their investment portfolio from global geopolitical uncertainty. Digital currencies like Bitcoin offer borderless and secure payments. While legacy currencies and payment system are susceptible to capital controls and currency manipulation, many believe Bitcoin is not. This leads to confidence in the digital currency as a potential safe-haven to stave off economic uncertainty.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

Alan Zibluk Market Hive Founding Member

What is the Willy Bitcoin Trading bot?

What is the Willy Bitcoin Trading bot?

Trading Bot Pushes Bitcoin Price Higher and Higher

When the infamous Mt. Gox exchange was on the verge of collapsing, there was a lot of discussion regarding the so-called Willy trading bot. Although there have been many trading bots ever since now would be a good time to look wat why the Willy Bot made such an impact on this particular exchange before it went bankrupt.

It has to be said, the years 2013 and 2014 were – for some part – quite enjoyable for bitcoin holders. After the price per BTC started to skyrocket, a lot of people suddenly took notice of this cryptocurrency. Mt. Gox was the center of trading activity, as it was one of the very few exchanges dealing with bitcoin at that time. Unfortunately, this price trend could not be sustained, eventually leading to the Mt. Gox collapse, customer funds being stolen, and the bitcoin price crashing to a low triple-digit value once again.

While most people have been focused on Mark Karpeles since Mt. Gox disappeared,  it is important to remember why the bitcoin price was skyrocketing, to begin with. As it turns out, bitcoin security firm WizSec successfully found the culprit behind this massive bitcoin price pump. The culprit goes by the name of Willy, and it is a bitcoin trading bot that only made an appearance on the Mt. Gox exchange. Willy first started its trading spree in September of 2013, eventually leading to the bitcoin price bubble and crash months after.

It is not hard to see how the Willy trading bot affected the Mt. Gox exchange and all of its users. To be more specific, the Willy bot is responsible for buying large amounts of bitcoin on the exchange over a six-week span. Given the low bitcoin price at that time, it appears the bot had access to enough funds to purchase about 250,000 bitcoin. Up until that point, there had never been such a high demand for bitcoin, which sent the price rocketing to its all-time high with relative ease.

In fact, on some trading ways, Willy accounted for 30-50% of Mt Gox’s entire trading volume. That is a significant amount, to say the least, indicating someone was carefully manipulating the bitcoin price in the process. No one will be surprised to learn there was some manual intervention by the person responsible for using the trading bot on the Mt. Gox exchange. Most people still believe Mark Karpeles is the person responsible for manually driving up the bitcoin price, although it is doubtful we’ll ever know the truth.

To this very day, there are still a lot of questions surrounding the infamous Willy bot. No one knows for sure who developed or used it, which is of particular concern given the current fiat currency issues affecting so many bitcoin exchanges. While it is doubtful anyone is using a similar trading bot to carefully drive up the price across multiple exchanges, the current bitcoin price trend shows some correlations with how things unfolded at Mt. Gox. We can only hope Bitfinex and other platforms are not being manipulated in the same manner, although there is no real reason to think that is the case right now.

It is also worth mentioning WizSec released an official Willy Report back in  May of 2014. Although the security firm was unable to provide answers to every question may have, they did a good job at creating a timeline of operations. Trading boats pose somewhat of a risk to bitcoin price stability, although it appears most creations have become a lot smarter over the past few years.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

Alan Zibluk Market Hive Founding Member

Florida Lawmakers Want Bitcoin Covered Under Money Laundering Law

Florida Lawmakers Want Bitcoin Covered Under Money Laundering Law

  

Florida lawmakers want virtual currencies like bitcoin

covered under the state’s money-laundering statute, a change that supporters claim would ensure criminals cannot use Internet-based currencies to conceal financial activities, according to The Miami Herald. Law enforcement officials support the measure but some bitcoin enthusiasts say it will undermine bitcoin. The proposed law was crafted by Miami-Dade cybercrime prosecutors after a judge threw out charges against a man accused of selling $1,500 in bitcoins to buy stolen credit card numbers on the Internet. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said high-tech criminals use virtual currencies to hide their illegal activities. The proposed law ensures fraudsters and traffickers cannot use Internet-based currencies to conceal and transfer illegal profits.

Bitcoin Supporters Weigh In

Some bitcoin supporters claim the law can undermine the cryptocurrency that could be helpful in promoting trade between Florida and nations like Venezuela that rely more on bitcoin since their own banking systems have crumbled. Charles Evans, an economist at Barry University specializing in bitcoin, said the law sends the message that financial innovation is unwelcome in Florida. Governments in other countries and states that welcome bitcoin will be pleased with Florida’s law from a competitive standpoint.

A state house committee passed the bill, sponsored by Miami Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, unanimously last week. Two state senate subcommittees have also passed the bill, and a state senate appropriations committee will soon vote on it. Money laundering applies to transactions that conceal funds earned from criminal activity under existing Florida law. Under the proposed law, “virtual currency” will be added to the list of “monetary instruments” covered under the state money laundering act. The law would define bitcoin as a “medium of exchange in an electronic or digital format that is not a coin or currency of the United States or any other country.”

Prosecutors will still have to prove intent under the law, according to Andrew Hinkes, a South Florida lawyer. Prosecutors would have to show that the accused changed money for bitcoin or vice versa to conceal funds or further a future illegal transaction. Hinkes said he did not believe the law would impact daily bitcoin users or investors. He said it could impact those exchanging bitcoins for dollars. The path to a prosecution of traders for money laundering is currently clearer in Florida.

Money Laundering Case Raised Issue

Police presented a case against a website designer, Michel Espinoza, for illegally transmitting and laundering $1,500 worth of bitcoins. Undercover agents bought bitcoin from Espinoza on a bitcoin exchange, LocalBitcoins.com and told him they wanted to use the funds to buy stolen credit card numbers.

Police arrested Espinoza and another man, Pascal Reid, who pleaded guilty to acting as an unlicensed money broker. Reid agreed to teach law enforcement about bitcoin under a plea agreement. Defense lawyers argued, however, that bitcoin is not money under Florida law. They told a judge in May 2016 that no bank or central government backs bitcoin and that regulation of bitcoin varies from state to state and country to country, and that the IRS views bitcoin deals as a form of bartering. The judge threw out the charges against Espinoza. Prosecutors are appealing the ruling.

Criminals And Others Use Bitcoin

Bitcoin has been used by drug dealers. A Miramar, Florida man was sentenced to 10 years in prison after buying Chinese-made synthetic heroin from a Canadian prisoner using bitcoin. When companies stopped accepting business from Backpage.com on account of sex trade ads, the website began accepting payment in bitcoin. Sex traffickers and prostitutes learned how to buy bitcoins to purchase ads on the website. A handful of Miami restaurants accepting bitcoin, including a South Beach hotel and The Clevelander, a club.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

Alan Zibluk Market Hive Founding Member

Bitcoin Price Nears All-Time High at $1,277, Led by Japan

Bitcoin Price Nears All-Time High at $1,277, Led by Japan

   Bitcoin Price Nears All-Time High at $1,277, Led by Japan

Bitcoin price is nearing its all-time high price,

prior to the official decision of the US Securities Exchange Commission to decline the Winklevoss twins’ Bitcoin ETF COIN set at $1,277. On Saturday, the global Bitcoin exchange market opened at $1,257, maintaining Friday’s momentum. On April 21, Bitcoin price briefly surpassed the $1,270 mark, positioning itself to surpass its all-time high price. At today’s peak, Bitcoin price increased up to $1,259 but stumbled, moving back down to $1,220. The market closed at $1,243, with a slight 1.23 percent decrease over the past 24 hours.

Still, Bitcoin price increased by over four percent on average in the past week, from around $1,180 to $1,243. Considering the optimistic trading activity of the Japanese exchange market and increasing interest in Bitcoin in the Indian market, Bitcoin price is expected to carry its momentum throughout next week.

Japan’s factor

The Japanese Bitcoin exchange market. which holds almost 50 percent of the global Bitcoin exchange market share with a $121.5 mln daily trading volume, is demonstrating a high level of trading activity, with an increase in Bitcoin price and trading volume.

As shown in the price chart provided by digital currency market data company Brave New Coin below, the daily trading volume of the Japanese Bitcoin exchange market has increased consistently over the past week, distancing itself from the US Bitcoin exchange market in terms of trading volume and market dominance.

There exist two main reasons why the interest in Bitcoin is increasing at a rapid rate in Japan, as shown in the trading volume and price chart above. First, as noted by financial analyst and Welt Senior Editor Holger Zschaepitz, Japan’s 10-year yields dropped back to zero percent for the first time since 2007.

Yield

In conventional finance, the yield represents the income return on an investment that is normally expressed as an annual percentage rate. Japan’s zero percent yield shows a severe economic instability and as Zschaepitz explained, the Bank of Japan is attempting to print massive amounts of the Japanese yen in order to increase the inflation rate and keep the economy afloat.

If the inflation rate in Japan rises, like China, investors usually move to alternative safe haven assets and wealth management products (WMPs) such as gold and Bitcoin. In terms of liquidity and mid-term profitability, Bitcoin appeals to a larger market and thus, in times of financial instability and economic uncertainty, the demand for Bitcoin increases.

Mainstream media

Moreover, the Japanese mainstream media have been offering extensive coverage on Bitcoin, particularly due to the acceptance of Bitcoin by Bic Camera and the legalization of Bitcoin by the Japanese government.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

Alan Zibluk Market Hive Founding Member

Georgia Records 100,000 Land Titles on Bitcoin Blockchain: BitFury

Georgia Records 100,000 Land Titles on Bitcoin Blockchain: BitFury

  

Georgian government and the Bitcoin company BitFury

In April 2016, the Georgian government and the Bitcoin company BitFury initiated a project to record land titles on the Blockchain. Following the project initiation, on Feb. 7th, 2017, in Tbilisi, the government of Georgia signed an agreement to use the Bitcoin Blockchain to verify property transactions.

And on 19th of April 2017, Valery Vavilov, CEO of BitFury during his speech at the Russian Internet Forum in Moscow, said, that since the launch in February 2017, when his company along with the government of the Republic of Georgia implemented the property registration on Blockchain had registered more than 100,000 documents.

Earlier this year, Tomicah Tillemann, Trust Accelerator co-founder and New America director of the Bretton Woods II program, commented about Georgia’s decision to use the public Bitcoin Blockchain:

“If you think about this happening at a time when a lot of people are struggling to separate what’s real from what’s fake, this is a powerful tool to prove what’s real. Especially when you’re dealing with something as fundamental as your home or property, it’s important to have that added layer of security that’s provided by Blockchain validation.”

Vavilov also said, that there is going to be more services to follow. Since Blockchain implementation, there is no possibility to manipulate the property registration data. It is not only a government implementation deal for BitFury, on April 13, the Bitfury Group has announced its partnership with the government of Ukraine, to bring a variety of Blockchain solutions to the electronic services of the latter.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

Alan Zibluk Market Hive Founding Member

Blockchain Is Helping to Build a New Kind of Energy Grid

Blockchain Is Helping to Build a New Kind of Energy Grid

Using the technology behind Bitcoin, participants in the Brooklyn Microgrid are buying and selling locally generated renewable energy over a peer-to-peer network.

If you have solar panels

that produce more energy than you need, you can sell the excess to a utility company. But what if you could sell it to your neighbor instead? A company called LO3 Energy has developed a system that lets people buy and sell locally generated solar energy within their communities. The system uses blockchain—the electronic ledger technology that underpins the digital currency Bitcoin—to facilitate and record the transactions.

Distributing energy this way is more efficient than transmitting energy over distances, said LO3’s founder, Lawrence Orsini, and would make neighborhoods more resilient to power outages, as well as helping meet demand when energy needs exceed expectations. It’s also in line with growing public support for renewable energy, distributed and decentralized energy systems, and “buy local” programs in general. At Business of Blockchain, a conference organized by MIT Technology Review and the MIT Media Lab, Orsini said that 69 percent of consumers told the technology consultancy Accenture that they were interested in having an energy-trading marketplace, and 47 percent said they planned to sign up for community solar projects.

LO3 Energy launched its peer-to-peer energy transactions system, which it calls the Brooklyn Microgrid, about a year ago. The miniature utility grid connects people who have solar panels on their roofs in several parts of Brooklyn with neighbors who want to buy locally generated green energy. Like other microgrids, it operates alongside, but separate from, the traditional energy grid. Blockchain makes the Brooklyn Microgrid possible, Orsini said. Participants install smart meters equipped with the technology, that tracks the energy they generate and consume. Records of the automatic “smart contracts” that enable neighbor-to-neighbor transactions are also tracked using blockchain. LO3 Energy hired the software maker ConsenSys to build the system, which is based on the blockchain-based distributed computing platform Ethereum.

“Blockchain is a really good communications protocol for what we want to do,” Orsini said at the conference. “This isn’t just about settling energy bills,” he added. “It’s about self-organizing at the grid edge, which can’t be done with normal databases.” Could microgrids like this shake up the energy industry? At the moment, Brooklyn Microgrid consists of only 50 physical nodes, but Orsini signed a partnership with German conglomerate Siemens in November and is talking to regulators in the U.S., Australia, and Europe about expansion. He is also willing to collaborate with utilities. “We’re not putting the utilities out of business, but we want their business model to evolve,” he said.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

Alan Zibluk Market Hive Founding Member

What Blockchain Is, And Why Some Experts Say It’s As Revolutionary As The Internet

What Blockchain Is,
And Why Some Experts Say It's As Revolutionary As The Internet

  

IBM Blockchain user interface designers

Dante Guintu, left, and Andrea Lee work on secure blockchain apps at IBM San Francisco in February 2016. (George Nikitin/Feature Photo Service for IBM, via AP) Tech experts say it's the next major revolution that could change our lives as drastically as the internet once did. (I know, it's hard to fathom, but try to think back to card catalogs.) It's called "blockchain" and was the subject of a recent event organized by the MIT Technology Review. If you're not familiar with the concept, read on. We hope to answer some basic questions.

What is the blockchain?

If you've ever tried to run a business, you're probably familiar with the idea of a ledger — a written list of transactions (think Excel or an old-school balance sheet in a binder). Essentially every multinational corporation or small Mom and Pop business uses ledgers to track sales and expenses.

In the most basic form, a blockchain refers to a shared digital ledger. "It's a global ledger that can record any transaction, and it'll keep that transaction and all the details associated with that transaction secure," explained Jalak Jobanputra, who runs Future Perfect Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund that focuses on investments in blockchain technology. And by having this system digital and public, blockchain advocates say it makes it easier to prove, track, trust and audit transactions.

The Buzz Behind 'Blockchain'

Blockchain got its start as the underlying technology behind Bitcoin, a decentralized digital cryptocurrency created in 2009. But while Bitcoin has had ups and downs over the years, for Neha Narula, who leads the Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, Bitcoin proved it was possible to send payments from one person to another securely without a "trusted third party." "We just quite simply hadn't seen that before," Narula said. "We'd never seen digital money transfer without a bank being involved and now we see it. And it's pretty cool and it's given us a lot of ideas for other things we could do."

Why is this tech considered so revolutionary? 

Tech experts say the blockhain can be used for so much more than Bitcoin. For example: It's being used by a startup called Everledger to track diamonds (so fake rocks and blood diamonds can be found more easily); it's being used by Walmart and IBM in China to track pork (so recalling contaminated food would be easier to handle); and it could be used in our modern banking system (so that you could more easily and securely transfer money between bank accounts).

It's the potential to cut out the middleman and create a digital record, more than the current reality of Bitcoin, that excites tech experts. "In a world where we trust our institutions less and less, having technologies that help us conduct business and get things done without needing to depend on central third parties seems ever more important," said Brian Behlendorf, the director of hyperledger, an umbrella project for open source blockchains.

Many companies and startups compare the blockchain world to the early days of the internet — it's decentralized and permission-less. "It's in some ways a little less sexy, a little harder to understand [than the internet], but for the people who get it, this suddenly becomes exciting," said Behlendorf, who believes this technology will revolutionize transactions the way the internet revolutionized communication.

OK, so if this is akin to the early days of the internet, where are we in that timeline? 

I asked this question to a few different people working in the blockchain arena, and here's what they said.

Behlendorf:

I'd say it's '95/'96, we're still before seeing a lot of return on the investments people are making in this space … but the value is becoming evident … but even in those early days, there was still this — why should we bother? Why should we make this happen?

Amber Baldet, who leads blockchain efforts at JP Morgan:

I don't think it's the '90s, I think it's closer to the late '60s. I keep a diagram behind my desk of ARPANET in 1969 … the proto-internet of these kinds of closed networks at the time that were completely academic. And those architectural diagrams look remarkably similar to the pilot … diagrams that are connecting a couple of banks [in a blockchain]. So I think we're really in that early of a days of the internet. But if you accept that the rate of technological change has increased … we'll probably see an explosion of innovation within the blockchain space over the next five, 10 to 20 years.

Narula:

I think we're actually in the '80s, we've got a ways to go. And what I mean by that is we're still figuring out some really basic underlying protocols. … This is the stage where there's a bunch of nerds sitting at Berkeley and MIT and CMU and UCLA who are sending each other emails, that's the stage we're at.

But for Narula, there's one key difference that makes this moment kind of "weird" and "scary." "Back then it was a bunch of scientists, you know, working in universities and government-funded research labs. No one was paying attention," she said. "Now, you've had all this attention … every major bank has people focusing on a blockchain." Experts say roughly $1 billion of venture capital money went toward blockchain startups in 2015. And Narula's not sure what that investment money means for the technology.

Blockchain bubble? 

Back in 2014, Felix Salmon, a financial journalist, and a high-profile Bitcoin skeptic, made a bet on NPR's "Planet Money" that bitcoin was a bubble that would burst. It hasn't popped yet, but it also hasn't become commonplace. According to the 2015 Survey of Consumer Payment Choice by the Federal Reserve of Boston, less than half of Americans had heard of any form of virtual currency. (Here's more from the Boston Fed on awareness of virtual currencies.) Still, even if Bitcoin fails, it's the underlying technology that could be resilient and revolutionary.

But how revolutionary is the question? Earth-shattering or just merely important. "The Bitcoin client is about 30,000 lines of code," Emin Gün Sirer, a professor at Cornell University, said at the MIT Tech Review conference. And he points out that in general code is "buggy." Gün Sirer has been researching ways in which the blockchain can fail. And while he believes blockchains "offer a completely different way of looking at the world and completely transforming it," he's also concerned some of the million-dollar VC funding is hype.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

Alan Zibluk Market Hive Founding Member