Blockchain technology, the series of interlocking algorithms powering digital currencies like BitCoin, is emerging as a potent fraud prevention tool. As every CFE knows, technology is enabling new forms of money and contracting, and the growing digital economy holds great promise to provide a full range of new financial tools, especially to the world’s poor and unbanked. These emerging virtual currencies and financial techniques are often anonymous, and none have received quite as much press as Bitcoin, the decentralized peer-to-peer digital form of money.
Bitcoins were invented in 2009 by a mysterious person (or group of people) using the alias Satoshi Nakamoto, and the coins are created or “mined” by solving increasingly difficult mathematical equations, requiring extensive computing power. The system is designed to ensure no more than twenty-one million Bitcoins are ever generated, thereby preventing a central authority from flooding the market with new Bitcoins. Most people purchase Bitcoins on third-party exchanges with traditional currencies, such as dollars or euros, or with credit cards. The exchange rates against the dollar for Bitcoin fluctuate wildly and have ranged from fifty cents per coin around the time of its introduction to over $16,0000 in December 2017. People can send Bitcoins, or percentages of bitcoin, to each other using computers or mobile apps, where coins are stored in digital wallets. Bitcoins can be directly exchanged between users anywhere in the world using unique alphanumeric identifiers, akin to e-mail addresses, and there are no transaction fees in the basic system, absent intermediaries.
Anytime a purchase takes place, it is recorded in a public ledger known as the “blockchain,” which ensures no duplicate transactions are permitted. Crypto currencies are called such because they use cryptography to regulate the creation and transfer of money, rather than relying on central authorities. Bitcoin acceptance continues to grow rapidly, and it is possible to use Bitcoins to buy cupcakes in San Francisco, cocktails in Manhattan, and a Subway sandwich in Allentown.
Because Bitcoin can be spent online without the need for a bank account and no ID is required to buy and sell the crypto currency, it provides a convenient system for anonymous, or more precisely pseudonymous, transactions, where a user’s true name is hidden. Though Bitcoin, like all forms of money, can be used for both legal and illegal purposes, its encryption techniques and relative anonymity make it strongly attractive to fraudsters and criminals of all kinds. Because funds are not stored in a central location, accounts cannot readily be seized or frozen by police, and tracing the transactions recorded in the blockchain is significantly more complex than serving a subpoena on a local bank operating within traditionally regulated financial networks. As a result, nearly all the so-called Dark Web’s illicit commerce is facilitated through alternative currency systems. People do not send paper checks or use credit cards in their own names to buy meth and pornography. Rather, they turn to anonymous digital and virtual forms of money such as Bitcoin.
A blockchain is, essentially, a way of moving information between parties over the Internet and storing that information and its transaction history on a disparate network of computers. Bitcoin, and all the other digital currencies, operates on a blockchain: as transactions are aggregated into blocks, each block is assigned a unique cryptographic signature called a “hash.” Once the validating cryptographic puzzle for the latest block has been solved by a coin mining computer, three things happen: the result is timestamped, the new block is linked irrevocably to the blocks before and after it by its unique hash, and the block and its hash are posted to all the other computers that were attempting to solve the puzzle involved in the mining process for new coins. This decentralized network of computers is the repository of the immutable ledger of bitcoin transactions. If you wanted to steal a bitcoin, you’d have to rewrite the coin’s entire history on the blockchain in broad daylight.
While bitcoin and other digital currencies operate on a blockchain, they are not the blockchain itself. It’s an insight of many computer scientists that in addition to exchanging digital money, the blockchain can be used to facilitate transactions of other kinds of digitized data, such as property registrations, birth certificates, medical records, and bills of lading. Because the blockchain is decentralized and its ledger immutable, all these types of transactions would be protected from hacking; and because the blockchain is a peer-to-peer system that lets people and businesses interact directly with each other, it is inherently more efficient and cheaper than current systems that are burdened with middlemen such as lawyers and regulators.
A CFE’s client company that aims to reduce drug counterfeiting could have its CFE investigator use the blockchain to follow pharmaceuticals from provenance to purchase. Another could use it to do something similar with high-end sneakers. Yet another, a medical marijuana producer, could create a blockchain that registers everything that has happened to a cannabis product, from seed to sale, letting consumers, retailers and government regulators know where everything came from and where it went. The same thing can be done with any normal crop so, in the same way that a consumer would want to know where the corn on her table came from, or the apple that she had at lunch originated, all stake holders involved in the medical marijuana enterprise would know where any batch of product originated and who touched it all along the way.
While a blockchain is not a full-on solution to fraud or hacking, its decentralized infrastructure ensures that there are no “honeypots” of data available, like financial or medical records on isolated company servers, for criminals to exploit. Still, touting a bitcoin-derived technology as an answer to cybercrime may seem a stretch considering the high-profile, and lucrative, thefts of cryptocurrency over the past few years. Its estimated that as of March 2015, a full third of all Bitcoin exchanges, (where people store their bitcoin), up to then had been hacked, and nearly half had closed. There was, most famously, the 2014 pilferage of Mt. Gox, a Japanese based digital coin exchange, in which 850,000 bitcoins worth $460,000,000 disappeared. Two years later another exchange, Bitfinex, was hacked and around $60 million in bitcoin was taken; the company’s solution was to spread the loss to all its customers, including those whose accounts had not been drained.
Unlike money kept in a bank, cryptocurrencies are uninsured and unregulated. That is one of the consequences of a monetary system that exists, intentionally, beyond government control or oversight. It may be small consolation to those who were affected by these thefts that the bitcoin network itself and the blockchain has never been breached, which perhaps proves the immunity of the blockchain to hacking.
This security of the blockchain itself demonstrates how smart contracts can be written and stored on it. These are covenants, written in code, that specify the terms of an agreement. They are smart because as soon as its terms are met, the contract executes automatically, without human intervention. Once triggered, it can’t be amended, tampered with, or impeded. This is programmable money. Such smart contracts are a tool with the potential to change how business in done. The concept, as with digital currencies, is based on computers synced together. Now imagine that rather than syncing a transaction, software is synced. Every machine in the network runs the same small program. It could be something simple, like a loan: A sends B some money, and B’s account automatically pays it back, with interest, a few days later. All parties agree to these terms, and it’s locked in using the smart contract. The parties have achieved programmable money!
There is no doubt that smart contracts and the blockchain itself will augment the trend toward automation, though it is automation through lines of code, not robotics. For businesses looking to cut costs and reduce fraud, this is one of the main attractions of blockchain technology. The challenge is that, if contracts are automated, what will happen to traditional firm control structures, processes, and intermediaries like lawyers and accountants? And what about managers? Their roles would all radically change. Most blockchain advocates imagine them changing so radically as to disappear altogether, taking with them many of the costs currently associated with doing business. According to a recent report in the trade press, the blockchain could reduce banks’ infrastructure costs attributable to cross-border payments, securities trading, and regulatory compliance by $15-20 billion per annum by 2022. Whereas most technologies tend to automate workers on the periphery, blockchain automates away the center. Instead of putting the taxi driver out of a job, blockchain puts Uber out of a job and lets the taxi drivers work with the customer directly.
Whether blockchain technology will be a revolution for good or one that continues what has come to seem technology’s inexorable, crushing ascendance will be determined not only by where it is deployed, but how. The blockchain could be used by NGOs to eliminate corruption in the distribution of foreign aid by enabling funds to move directly from giver to receiver. It is also a way for banks to operate without external oversight, encouraging other kinds of corruption. Either way, we as CFEs would be wise to remember that technology is never neutral. It is always endowed with the values of its creators. In the case of the blockchain and crypto-currency, those values are libertarian and mechanistic; trust resides in algorithmic rules, while the rules of the state and other regulatory bodies are often viewed with suspicion and hostility.