Where shared ledgers add real value in enterprise IT
Almost a year after first releasing MultiChain, we’ve learnt a huge amount about how blockchains, in a private and non-cryptocurrency sense, can and cannot be applied to real-world problems. Allow me to share what we know so far.
To begin with, the first idea that we (and many others) started with, appears to be wrong. This idea, inspired by bitcoin directly, was that private blockchains (or “shared ledgers”) could be used to directly settle the majority of payment and exchange transactions in the finance sector, using on-chain tokens to represent cash, stocks, bonds and more.
This is perfectly workable on a technical level, so what’s the problem? In a word, confidentiality. If multiple institutions are using a shared ledger, then every institution sees every transaction on that ledger, even if they don’t immediately know the real-world identities of the parties involved. This turns out to be a huge issue, both in terms of regulation and the commercial realities of inter-bank competition. While various strategies are available or in development for mitigating this problem, none can match the simplicity and efficiency of a centralized database managed by a trusted intermediary, which maintains full control over who can see what. For now at least, it seems that large financial institutions prefer to keep most transactions hidden in these intermediary databases, despite the costs involved.
I base this conclusion not only on our own experience, but also on the direction taken by several prominent startups whose initial goal was to develop shared ledgers for banks. For example, both R3CEV and Digital Asset are now working on “contract description languages”, in Corda and DAML respectively (earlier examples include MLFi and Ricardian Contracts). These languages allow the conditions of a complex financial contract to be represented formally and unambiguously in a computer readable format, while avoiding the shortcomings of Ethereum-style general purpose computation. Instead, the blockchain plays only a supporting role, storing or notarizing the contracts in encrypted form, and performing some basic duplicate detection. The actual contract execution does not take place on the blockchain – rather, it is performed only by the contract’s counterparties, with the likely addition of auditors and regulators.
In the near term, this is probably the best that can be done, but where does it leave the broader ambitions for permissioned blockchains? Are there other applications for which they can form a more significant part of the puzzle?
This question can be approached both theoretically and empirically. Theoretically, by focusing on the key differences between blockchains and traditional databases, and how these inform the set of possible use cases. And in our case, empirically, by categorizing the real-world solutions being built on MultiChain today. Not surprisingly, whether we focus on theory or practice, the same classes of use case arise:
- Lightweight financial systems.
- Provenance tracking.
- Interorganizational record keeping.
- Multiparty aggregation.
Before explaining these in detail, let’s recap the theory. As I’ve discussed before, the two most important differences between blockchains and centralized databases can be characterized as follows:
- Disintermediation. Blockchains enable multiple parties who do not fully trust each other to safely and directly share a single database without requiring a trusted intermediary.
- Confidentiality: All participants in a blockchain see all of the transactions taking place. (Even if we use pseudonymous addresses and advanced cryptography to hide some aspects of those transactions, a blockchain will always leak more information than a centralized database.)
In other words, blockchains are ideal for shared databases in which every user is able to read everything, but no single user controls who can write what. By contrast, in traditional databases, a single entity exerts control over all read and write operations, while other users are entirely subject to that entity’s whims. To sum it up in one sentence:
Blockchains represent a trade-off in which disintermediation is gained at the cost of confidentiality.
In examining the four types of use case below, we’ll repeatedly come back to this core trade-off, explaining why, in each case, the benefit of disintermediation outweighs the cost of reduced confidentiality.
Lightweight financial systems
Let’s start with the class of blockchain applications that will be most familiar, in which a group of entities wishes to set up a financial system. Within this system, one or more scarce assets are transacted and exchanged between those entities.
In order for any asset to remain scarce, two related problems must be solved. First, we must ensure that the same unit of the asset cannot be sent to more than one place (a “double spend”). Second, it must be impossible for anyone to create new units of the asset on a whim (“forgery”). Any entity which could do either of these things could steal unlimited value from the system.
A common solution to these problems is physical tokens, such as metal coins or securely printed paper. These tokens trivially solve the problem of double spending, because the rules of physics (literally) prevent one token from being in two places at the same time. The problem of forgery is solved by making the token extremely difficult to manufacture. Still, physical tokens suffer from several shortcomings which can render them impractical:
- As pure bearer assets, physical tokens can be stolen with no trace or recourse.
- They are slow and costly to move in large numbers or over long distances.
- It is tricky and expensive to create physical tokens that cannot be forged.
These shortcomings can be avoided by leaving physical tokens behind, and redefining asset ownership in terms of a ledger managed by a trusted intermediary. In the past, these ledgers were based on paper records, and today they tend to run on regular databases. Either way, the intermediary enacts a transfer of ownership by modifying the ledger’s content, in response to an authenticated request. Unlike settlement with physical tokens, questionable transactions can quickly and easily be reversed.
So what’s the problem with ledgers? In a nutshell, concentration of control. By putting so much power in one place, we create a significant security challenge, in both technical and human terms. If someone external can hack into the database, they can change the ledger at will, stealing others’ funds or destroying its contents completely. Even worse, someone on the inside could corrupt the ledger, and this kind of attack is hard to detect or prove. As a result, wherever we have a centralized ledger, we must invest significant time and money in mechanisms to maintain that ledger’s integrity. And in many cases, we require ongoing verification using batch-based reconciliation between the central ledger and those of each of the transacting parties.
Enter the blockchain (or “shared ledger”). This provides the benefits of ledgers without suffering from the problem of concentration. Instead, each entity runs a “node” holding a copy of the ledger and maintains full control over its own assets, which are protected by private keys. Transactions propagate between nodes in a peer-to-peer fashion, with the blockchain ensuring that consensus is maintained. This architecture leaves no central attack point through which a hacker or insider could corrupt the ledger’s contents. As a result, a digital financial system can be deployed more quickly and cheaply, with the added benefit of automatic reconciliation in real time.
So what’s the downside? As discussed earlier, all participants in a shared ledger see all of the transactions taking place, rendering it unusable in situations where confidentiality is required. Instead, blockchains are suitable for what I call lightweight financial systems, namely those in which the economic stakes or number of participants is relatively low. In these cases, confidentiality tends to be less of an issue – even if the participants pay close attention to what each other are doing, they won’t learn much of value. And it is precisely because the stakes are low that we prefer to avoid the hassle and cost of setting up an intermediary.
Some obvious examples of lightweight financial systems include: crowdfunding, gift cards, loyalty points and local currencies – especially in cases where assets are redeemable in more than one place. But we are also seeing use cases in the mainstream finance sector, such as peer-to-peer trading between asset managers who are not in direct competition. Blockchains are even being tested as internal accounting systems, in large organizations where each department or location must maintain control of its funds. In all these cases, the lower cost and friction of blockchains provides an immediate benefit, while the loss of confidentiality is not a concern.
Here’s a second class of use case that we repeatedly hear from MultiChain’s users: tracking the origin and movement of high-value items across a supply chain, such as luxury goods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and electronics. And equally, critical items of documentation such as bills of lading or letters of credit. In supply chains stretching across time and distance, all of these items suffer from counterfeiting and theft.
The problem can be addressed using blockchains in the following way: when the high-value item is created, a corresponding digital token is issued by a trusted entity, which acts to authenticate its point of origin. Then, every time the physical item changes hands, the digital token is moved in parallel, so that the real-world chain of custody is precisely mirrored by a chain of transactions on the blockchain.
If you like, the token is acting as a virtual “certificate of authenticity”, which is far harder to steal or forge than a piece of paper. Upon receiving the digital token, the final recipient of the physical item, whether a bank, distributor, retailer or customer, can verify the chain of custody all the way back to the point of origin. Indeed, in the case of documentation such as bills of lading, we can do away with the physical item altogether.
While all of this makes sense, the astute reader will notice that a regular database, managed (say) by an item’s manufacturer, can accomplish the same task. This database would store a record of the current owner of each item, accepting signed transactions representing each change of ownership, and respond to incoming requests regarding the current state of play.
So why use a blockchain instead? The answer is that, for this type of application, there’s a benefit to distributed trust. No matter where a centralized database is held, there will be people in that place who have the ability (and can be bribed) to corrupt its contents, marking forged or stolen items as legit. By contrast, if provenance is tracked on a blockchain belonging collectively to a supply chain’s participants, no individual entity or small group of entities can corrupt the chain of custody, and end users can have more confidence in the answers they receive. As a bonus, different tokens (say for some goods and the corresponding bill of lading) can be safely and directly exchanged, with a two-way swap guaranteed at the lowest blockchain level.
What about the problem of confidentiality? The suitability of blockchains for supply chain provenance is a happy result of this application’s simple pattern of transactions. In contrast to financial marketplaces, most tokens move in a single direction, from origin to endpoint, without being repeatedly traded back-and-forth between the blockchain’s participants. If competitors rarely transact with each other (e.g. toy manufacturer to toy manufacturer, or retailer to retailer), they cannot learn each others’ blockchain “addresses” and connect those to real-world identities. Furthermore, the activity can be easily partitioned into multiple ledgers, each representing a different order or type of good.
Interorganizational record keeping
Both of the previous use cases are based on tokenized assets, i.e. on-chain representations of an item of value transferred between participants. However there is a second group of blockchain use cases which is not related to assets. Instead, the chain acts as a mechanism for collectively recording and notarizing any type of data, whose meaning can be financial or otherwise.
One such example is an audit trail of critical communications between two or more organizations, say in the healthcare or legal sectors. No individual organization in the group can be trusted with maintaining this archive of records, because falsified or deleted information would significantly damage the others. Nonetheless it is vital that all agree on the archive’s contents, in order to prevent disputes.
To solve this problem, we need a shared database into which all of the records are written, with each record accompanied by a timestamp and proof of origin. The standard solution would be to create a trusted intermediary, whose role is to collect and store the records centrally. But blockchains offer a different approach, giving the organizations a way to jointly manage this archive, while preventing individual participants (or small groups thereof) from corrupting it.
One of the most enlightening conversations I’ve had in the past two years was with Michael Mainelli of Z/Yen. For 20 years his company has been building systems in which multiple entities collectively manage a shared digital audit trail, using timestamping, digital signatures and a round robin consensus scheme. As he explained the technical details of these systems, it became clear that they are permissioned blockchains in every respect. In other words, there is nothing new about using a blockchain for interorganizational recordkeeping – it’s just that the world has finally become aware of the possibility.
In terms of the actual data stored on the blockchain, there are three popular options:
- Unencrypted data. This can be read by every participant in the blockchain, providing full collective transparency and immediate resolution in the case of a dispute.
- Encrypted data. This can only be read by participants with the appropriate decryption key. In the event of a dispute, anyone can reveal this key to a trusted authority such as a court, and use the blockchain to prove that the original data was added by a certain party at a certain point in time.
- Hashed data. A “hash” acts as a compact digital fingerprint, representing a commitment to a particular piece of data while keeping that data hidden. Given some data, any party can easily confirm if it matches a given hash, but inferring data from its hash is computationally impossible. Only the hash is placed on the blockchain, with the original data stored off-chain by interested parties, who can reveal it in case of a dispute.
As mentioned earlier, R3CEV’s Corda product has adopted this third approach, storing hashes on a blockchain to notarize contracts between counterparties, without revealing their contents. This method can be used both for computer-readable contract descriptions, as well as PDF files containing paper documentation.
Naturally, confidentiality is not an issue for interorganizational record keeping, because the entire purpose is to create a shared archive that all the participants can see (even if some data is encrypted or hashed). Indeed in some cases a blockchain can help manage access to confidential off-chain data, by providing an immutable record of digitally signed access requests. Either way, the straightforward benefit of disintermediation is that no additional entity must be created and trusted to maintain this record.
Technically speaking, this final class of use case is similar to the previous one, in that multiple parties are writing data to a collectively managed record. However in this case the motivation is different – to overcome the infrastructural difficulty of combining information from a large number of separate sources.
Imagine two banks with internal databases of customer identity verifications. At some point they notice that they share a lot of customers, so they enter a reciprocal sharing arrangement in which they exchange verification data to avoid duplicated work. Technically, the agreement is implemented using standard master–slave data replication, in which each bank maintains a live read-only copy of the other’s database, and runs queries in parallel against its own database and the replica. So far, so good.
Now imagine these two banks invite three others to participate in this circle of sharing. Each of the 5 banks runs its own master database, along with 4 read-only replicas of the others. With 5 masters and 20 replicas, we have 25 database instances in total. While doable, this consumes noticeable time and resources in each bank’s IT department.
Fast forward to the point where 20 banks are sharing information in this way, and we’re looking at 400 database instances in total. For 100 banks, we reach 10,000 instances. In general, if every party is sharing information with every other, the total number of database instances grows with the square of the number of participants. At some point in this process, the system is bound to break down.
So what’s the solution? One obvious option is for all of the banks to submit their data to a trusted intermediary, whose job is to aggregate that data in a single master database. Each bank could then query this database remotely, or run a local read-only replica within its own four walls. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, blockchains offer a cheaper alternative, in which the shared database is run directly by the banks which use it. Blockchains also bring the added benefit of redundancy and failover for the system as a whole.
It’s important to clarify that a blockchain is not acting just as a distributed database like Cassandra or RethinkDB. Unlike these systems, each blockchain node enforces a set of rules which prevent one participant from modifying or deleting the data added by another. Indeed, there still appears to be some confusion about this – one recently released blockchain platform can be broken by a single misbehaving node. In any event, a good platform will also make it easy to manage networks with thousands of nodes, joining and leaving at will, if granted the appropriate permissions.
Although I’m a little skeptical of the oft-cited connection between blockchains and the Internet of Things, I think this might be where a strong such synergy lies. Of course, each “thing” would be too small to store a full copy of the blockchain locally. Rather, it would transmit data-bearing transactions to a distributed network of blockchain nodes, who would collate it all together for further retrieval and analysis.
Conclusion: Blockchains in Finance
I started this piece by questioning the initial use case envisioned for blockchains in the finance sector, namely the bulk settlement of payment and exchange transactions. While I believe this conclusion is becoming common wisdom (with one notable exception), it does not mean that blockchains have no other applications in this industry. In fact, for each of the four classes of use case outlined above, we see clear applications for banks and other financial institutions. Respectively, these are: small trading circles, provenance for trade finance, bilateral contract notarization and the aggregation of AML/KYC data.
The key to understand is that, architecturally, our four classes of use case are not specific to finance, and are equally relevant to other sectors such as insurance, healthcare, distribution, manufacturing and IT. Indeed, private blockchains should be considered for any situation in which two or more organizations need a shared view of reality, and that view does not originate from a single source. In these cases, blockchains offer an alternative to the need for a trusted intermediary, leading to significant savings in hassle and cost.
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SafeEarth Donates $100,000 to TheOceanCleanUp Kicking Off Blockchain Eco Project
Bitcoin Press Release: Blockchain eco project SafeEarth has donated over $100,000 to TheOceanCleanUp charity with more donations planned for other global charities.
16th April, 2021, London, UK — SafeEarth, a blockchain eco project, has donated over $100,000 to community selected charity TheOceanCleanUp. The donated funds will help towards the removal of plastic waste from the planet. This generous donation represents the first act of SafeEarth’s continuing initiative to help charities across the globe.
The money was raised from SAFEEARTH token transaction fees. From each token transaction a portion of the fees will continue to be used for further donations to charities that focus on green initiatives as SafeEarth looks to effect a lasting and positive change on the planet.
The Ocean Cleanup Head of IT Steven Bink offered his thanks to Safe Earth on Twitter, stating:
“Dear SafeEarth community. On behalf of the entire crew at The Ocean Cleanup, I would like to thank you for this very generous donation. We are also honored that you chose The Ocean Cleanup to be the first charity to receive this gift from @SafeEarthETH”
Safe Earth & Earth Fund
Deforestation, pollution, global warming and many other factors have had an adverse effect on the environment for decades. As the world shifts more towards renewables and eco-friendly alternatives, initiatives like that of Safe Earth represent a changing mentality in industry
SafeEarth’s sole focus is to generate capital and build a community which is able to repair the ecological damage done to the planet. Safe Earth also collaborates with another green charity called The Earth Fund, which has raised around 50 ETH ($125,000 at the time of writing) to be used for similar causes.
As a part of their plan to raise awareness for ecological causes SafeEarth have also started a #PlasticChallenge on twitter, which urges people to get rid of plastic waste. The challenge (which launched on 27th of March) rewards users from a prize pool of $3,600 in SAFEEARTH tokens.
In the short time since the challenge began the SAFEEARTH token has been listed on the number one DEX Uniswap, recorded $3 million in trading volume and locked away more than $1.5 million in liquidity.
SAFEEARTH Token Burn & Benefits
The SAFEEARTH token is a deflationary asset that uses an autonomous yield and liquidity generation protocol. Each transaction charges a total of 4% in fees, which is then broken up evenly with 1% going to charities, 1% refunded to holders, 1% for advertising and 1% token lock-ups to increase liquidity. By burning at least 50% of the total supply after launch, (which will go to a black hole address) SafeEarth ensures increased token scarcity and liquidity.
$SAFEMARS is the sister token to SafeEarth and available on PancakeSwap exchange. The token uses very similar tokenomics to SAFEEARTH and over 50% of the tokens have already been burned. As none of the transaction fees from SafeMars go towards charity the company has chosen to give more back to users, with a total of 2% going instantly back to the holders wallets and the other 2% is auto-locked to increase scarcity and liquidity. Right now the number of $SAFEMARS holders is growing steadily with 93,699 holders at the time of writing.
Save Earth Through Safe Earth
Harnessing blockchain technology through it’s unique protocol in the interest of both charitable giving and community incentives is helping SafeEarth to stand out from its competition. This $100,000 donation is just the beginning of the company’s mission to effect a lasting and positive change to the planet.
SafeEarth blockchain eco project is already gearing up for another large donation with another 35 ETH (roughly $87,600) reserved for 5 charities that focus on humanitarian causes, such as access to clean water and wildlife preservation. The charities will be chosen by the SafeEarth community and will be announced on Earth Day, April 22nd, 2021.
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Learn more about SafeEarth — https://safeearthcrypto.com/
Buy SafeEarth Coin on Uniswap — https://app.uniswap.org/#/swap
Take off with SafeMars — https://www.safemarscrypto.com/index.html
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SafeEarth is the source of this content. This Press Release is for informational purposes only. The information does not constitute investment advice or an offer to invest.
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Did Elon Musk’s ‘jet fuel’ set GameStop (and Bitcoin) ablaze?
Depending on where you stand on the GameStop saga, which saw organized retail traders extract $6 billion from Wall Street overnight, you may think someone should either take the matches away from Elon Musk, or give him more.
The CEO and “Technoking” of Tesla was accused of pouring “jet fuel” on the GameStop short-squeeze at a critical moment by hedge fund manager David Einhorn, founder of Greenlight Capital, in a letter to investors published Thursday.
Einhorn said Elon Musk and venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya were the real instigators behind the short-squeeze, claiming both had supplied “the real jet fuel” for the pump with their tweets and TV appearances.
“We note that the real jet fuel on the GME squeeze came from Chamath Palihapitiya and Elon Musk, whose appearances on TV and Twitter, respectively, at a critical moment further destabilized the situation,” wrote Einhorn, according to Markets Insider.
Amid the orchestrated short-squeeze on GameStop by redditors on r/WallStreetBets, Elon Musk tweeted what some interpreted as his support for the endeavor. On Jan. 26, shortly after GME stock was pumped 91% in a single day, Musk tweeted the phrase “Gamestonk!!” accompanied by a link to the WallStreetBets sub-reddit.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, GME stock soared 134%, climbing from a unit price of $147 to $347. The following 24 hours brought even more fireworks, and by Jan. 28, the value of GameStop shares had hit an all time high of $483 — an 18,693% increase on the stock’s value just nine months earlier.
Chamath Palihapitiya appeared to voice his support for the short-squeeze on Jan. 27, when he told interviewers on CNBC that the GameStop saga was an example of the man on the street pushing back against the man on Wall Street.
Einhorn said that “quasi-anarchy” now reigns, based on what he sees as toothless regulation of the stock market. Einhorn compared the situation, where “the laws don’t apply to [Elon Musk]” to the defunding of the police force.
“Many who would never support defunding the police have supported — and for all intents and purposes have succeeded — in almost completely defanging, if not defunding, the regulators,” said Einhorn.
Previously Elon Musk was suggested to have unduly influenced the cryptocurrency market with his vocal support of Bitcoin (BTC) and Dogecoin (DOGE) via Twitter. Legal professionals suggested in February that Musk’s tweets may have acted as a catalyst for the coins’ gains at the time, and warned that such tweets could attract SEC attention.
Musk laughed off the suggestion at the time, claiming that he would welcome any SEC investigation into his tweets, and that he simply liked “dogs and memes.”
Turkey to ban cryptocurrency payments
A new ban in Turkey will prohibit crypto holders from using their digital assets for payments, in addition to preventing payment providers from adding funds to their digital wallets at crypto exchanges.
According to a Friday announcement by the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey, the ban will come into effect on April 30, rendering any crypto payments solutions and partnerships illegal.
The bank stated, “any direct or indirect usage of crypto assets in payment services and electronic money issuance” will be forbidden.
While banks are excluded from the regulation, which means users can still deposit Turkish lira on crypto exchanges using wire transfers from their bank accounts, payment providers will be unable to provide deposit or withdrawal services for crypto exchanges.
Payment providers and digital wallets are widely used in Turkey to transfer fiat funds to crypto exchanges and vice versa. Major global exchange Binance partnered with local payment provider Papara when they first entered the Turkish market to provide a lira onramp for several different cryptocurrencies.
This new regulation means that users have two weeks to clear their balances if they exclusively use payment providers as fiat-to-crypto gateways.
Historically, the Turkish government has always had a tight grip on the payment ecosystem. In 2016, Turkey banned major global payment provider PayPal in the country.
Crypto regulation is a hot topic for Turkey in recent months. Last month, the Turkish Ministry of Treasury and Finance announced that they are monitoring the crypto ecosystem and working with the Central Bank, Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency, and Capital Markets Board to regulate crypto.
Additional reporting by Cointelegraph Turkey’s Emre Günen.
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