Tag Archives: smart contracts

Libra: Corporate Money in furtherance of surveillance capitalism

This blog is the first of a two-part series capturing my thoughts on Libra, Facebook’s cryptocurrency announced in mid-June. My thanks to Shahin Khan for his comments and suggestions.

Libra is a clever name. It implies harmony, peace and balance. Librae was also an ancient Roman unit of weight and was used in Middle English to refer to a pound. As we know the English monetary pound started out as a pound of silver. It’s symbol continues to be a special form of the letter L. So there is a deep historical monetary reference.

Libra aims to be the coin that takes cryptocurrency mainstream. Starting in 2020.

Government Money, Private Money, Corporate Money

The idea of a fully digital or electricity-based money goes back several decades. The introduction of Bitcoin in 2008/09 was both a result of technological advancements that provided the foundation for a secure cryptocurrency and a reaction to the failures of the banking system and fiat currency that produced the Great Recession.

Bitcoin fits in the category of Private Money. No government issues it; no corporation is behind it. It is created on ‘mining’ computers in accordance with the Nakamoto consensus and its monetary policy, with a Proof of Work cryptographic algorithm; anyone can mine it. It as if you dug up gold and refined it and fashioned into a bar and stamped the weight and fineness. In this case the Nakamoto consensus inserts the new money into the decentralized open ledger for Bitcoin at the public address of the miner and under the control of the private key of the miner. The miner can sell (transfer to another public address) the Bitcoin for fiat on an exchange and use that fiat to pay the electricity bill and other costs.

Libra, introduced by Facebook and 27 Association partners in mid-June 2019 is, make no mistake, Corporate Money. It is created by an association of corporations in a partnership expected to grow to perhaps 100 members over time. Each member of the association has to stake $10 million to join and must fulfill other requirements related to size and reputation. (Certain non-profits can join under less stringent guidelines).

Is it a blockchain? 

These Association members are then able to act as validators of transactions into the open quasi-decentralized ledger of Libra. This is a permissioned ledger maintained by the Association members who take turns serving as the lead validator, each with the larger of 1 vote or 1% of votes.

A key part of the security of Bitcoin is based in chaining of transaction blocks. The chain is created by hashing the previous block and inserting that hash into the current block, and doing this repetitively.

In the Libra model, the block and the chain are virtual. Libra blocks are batches of transactions as proposed by the lead validator. A 2/3 quorum among validators is required to approve the block of transactions. Establishing that quorum relies on a chain, but there is no direct relationship between the ‘block’ and the ‘chain’ for these.

Referring to it as the Libra Blockchain, as the white papers do, is a marketing stretch at best. Each new transaction creates a new ledger state that is stored as a Merkle tree and validated. There are no blocks in the ledger, much less a blockchain. Facebook wants to use the term to help ease the regulatory burden perhaps, and because of general market awareness.

The consensus used by validators is a voting mechanism that requires a 2/3 majority and is a type of Byzantine Fault Tolerance. The consensus can be thought of as a hybrid with Proof of Stake since Association members must put up considerable capital. And in fact, the Libra white paper states the intent is to move to a Proof of Stake algorithm over time. This remains a tricky problem; Ethereum has been delaying a move to Proof of Stake for years.

Smart Libra

My Mom was a Libra, she was smart. This Libra also intends to be smart, and to support a range of applications. Libra has its own language, called Move, for smart contracts, including the core token creation, accounting, and payments functions. This is a stack-based language with restricted functionality and with a source level compiler, intermediate representation and a run-time environment in a virtual machine to execute bytecode. Initially the intermediate representation, bytecode specification, and VM are available as open source; the compiler is under development.

Move is designed to be safer than say, Solidity, the default smart contract language for Ethereum, which has suffered a number of hacks. Being better than Solidity is not a high bar.

Less flexibility and not being Turing-complete can prevent ambiguity and are thus desirable attributes for smart contracts moving money around. Initially only a predefined set of essential contracts are available, but the intent is to open things up to the developer community over time.

Move will be the development environment for smart contracts implementing a wide range of e-commerce offerings accessed from the Facebook portfolio. The Libra Association will proceed carefully to maintain security. 

Composition of the SDR before the Chinese Yuan was added

SDR-Lite

But enough of the gory technical details. What is Libra in currency terms and what is it good for? In currency terms it is a basket of strong currencies such as the US dollar ($) and the Euro (€), created with 100% reserve backing in the form of short-term securities (bills) and cash deposited in bank or brokerage accounts. It appears that the initial currencies in the basket will also include the UK £ and the Japanese ¥.

The Libra money supply is dynamic. Libra will be created or destroyed (burned) in response to demand. Thus, unlike Bitcoin, its monetary policy is derived from the mix of currencies in the basket.

So it is a stable coin, but unlike other stable coins, it is tied to a currency basket. It looks rather like the Special Drawing Rights (SDR) administered by the International Monetary Fund, but without the Chinese Yuan. Facebook is not allowed to operate in China for censorship reasons, so the Yuan, which is also subject to strict capital controls, is left out of the basket.

Think of it like a money market fund, but the dividends from holding short-term government paper do not go to holders of Libra. They accrue to a separate currency called the Libra Investment Token that is only held by Association members who have staked the $10 million entry fee.

As Corporate money, it is important that it be audited to ensure full reserves are held as backing, otherwise the value could drop below the nominal currency basket value. It may trade at a slight discount or premium in any case.

There are risks with pegging to a basket of fiat money and accepting fiat money that is not in the basket. For example, suppose a banking liquidity crisis, or a crisis of confidence arises, in Italy (as an example), and fears arise that Italy might withdraw from the Euro.  If the Libra Association is holding Euro in Italian banks, seeking higher yields than in Germany, then in this instance they could lose the peg, slip below the nominal value, due to concerns of bank insolvency.

What Could Have Been

The promise of cryptocurrencies includes decentralization, trustless security, immutability, open source access, permission-less participation, autonomous smart contracts, pseudonymity, a tamper-proof monetary policy, and an easy-to-use development environment. 

Achieving such a mix of attributes is difficult. When it has been approached, it has resulted in slow transaction rates and volatility, making the currency unsuitable for high volume transactions or for every-day use.  To address this, the industry has responded by (a) compromising on the ideals of cryptocurrency, accepting less-rigorous variations of the above attributes in order to achieve higher transaction rates, and (b) creating stablecoins tied to fiat currency to address volatility. 

Facebook’s commanding global digital presence can drive adoption and take the cryptocurrency concept to the mainstream. However, Libra compromises on too many attributes of the ideal cryptocurrency to be categorized as anything but a walled-garden Corporate money, and barely a “crypto” currency at that.

Imagine if instead of creating this Corporate money Facebook had:

  1. Created a currency (call it Solar) that association members could mine on supercomputers via Proof of Work, but also any Facebook user could mine on their laptop or phone, and
  2. Established a system that would pay license fees in Solar for data placed into the Facebook platforms, and
  3. Implemented a true blockchain that would secure the ownership of the data for the originators.
  4. The name ‘Solar’ indicates that the currency would be beyond global and eventually be used in colonies on the Moon, Mars and Callisto.

But that wouldn’t be Corporate money, that would be People’s money. That wouldn’t be in furtherance of surveillance capitalism.

Blockchains Could be Vital to National Security

Last year Tokyo hosted a meeting of the International Standards Organization, including a session on blockchain technology to examine ideas around standards for blockchain and distributed ledgers.

A member of the Russian delegation, who is part of their intelligence apparatus at the FSB, apparently said “the Internet belonged to the US, the Blockchain will belong to Russia.” In fact three of the four Russian delegates were FSB agents!

By contrast, Chinese attendees were from the Finance Ministry, and American attendees were representing major technology companies, reportedly IBM and Microsoft among others.

Let’s unpack this a bit. The Internet grew out of a US military funded program, Arpanet, and the US has been the dominant player in Internet technology due to the strength of its research community and its technology companies in particular.

As we wrote in our most recent blog (http://orionx.net/2018/05/is-blockchain-the-key-to-web-3-0/), blockchain has the potential to significantly impact the Internet’s development, as a key Web 3.0 technology.

Blockchain and the first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, were developed by an unknown person or persons, with pen name Satoshi Nakamoto. Based on email timestamps, the location may have been New York or London, so American or British citizenship for Bitcoin’s inventor seem likely, but that is speculation.

More to the point, the US is the center of blockchain funding and development activity, while China in particular has been playing a major role in mining and cryptocurrency development.

There are many Russian and Eastern European developers and ICO promoters in the community as well. The Baltic nations bordering Russia and the Russian diaspora community have been particularly active.

The second most valuable cryptocurrency after Bitcoin is Ethereum, which was invented by a Russian-Canadian, Vitalik Buterin. Buterin famously met with Russian President Vladimir Butin in 2017. Putin is himself of course a former intelligence agent.

The Russians reportedly want to influence the cryptographic standards around blockchain. This immediately raises fears of a backdoor accessible to Russian intelligence. Russia is also considering the idea of a cryptocurrency as a way to get around sanctions imposed by the American and European governments.

The Russian government has a number of blockchain projects. The government-run Sberbank had initial implementation of a document storage blockchain late last year. There is draft regulation around cryptocurrency working its way through the Russian parliament. President Putin has said that Russia cannot afford to fall behind in blockchain technology.

Given the broad array of applications being developed for cryptocurrencies, including money transfer, asset registration, identity, voting, data security, and supply chain management among others, national governments have critical interests in the technology.

China has been cracking down on ICOs and mining, but it is clear they think blockchain is important and they want to be in control. Most of their government concerns and interest appear to be centered around the potential in finance, such as examining the possibility of a national cryptocurrency (cryptoYuan).

China would like to wriggle free from the dollar standard that dominates trade and their currency reserves. They have joined the SDR (foreign reserve assets of the IMF) and have been building their stocks of gold as two alternatives to the dollar.

China’s biggest international initiative is around a new ‘Silk Road’, the One Belt, One Road initiative for infrastructure development across EurAsia and into the Middle East and Africa. One could imagine a trading currency in conjunction with this, a “SilkRoadCoin”. In fact, the government-run Belt and Development Center has just announced an agreement with Matrix AI as blockchain partner. Matrix AI is developing a blockchain that will support AI-based consensus mechanisms and intelligent contracts.

China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, actually has six land corridors and a maritime corridor. (Image credit: CC 4.0, author: Lommes)

The American military is taking interest in blockchain technology. DARPA believes that blockchain may be useful as a cybersecurity shield. The US Navy has a manufacturing related application around the concept of Digital Thread for secure registration of data across the supply chain.

In fact the latest National Defense Authorization Act requires the Pentagon to assess the potential of blockchain for military deployment and to report to Congress their findings, beginning this month for an initial report.

What is clear, is that blockchain and distributed ledger technology have the potential to be of major significance in national security and development for the world’s leading nations.

We encourage the US government to increase engagement with blockchain and distributed ledger technology. This can include funding research in universities, pilot projects with industry across various government agencies including the military and intelligence communities, the Federal Reserve, and the Department of Energy, NOAA and NASA, in particular.

Also the federal government should pursue standards development under the auspices of the NIST and together with ISO. Individual state governments are also promising laboratories for projects around identity, voting, and title registration.

Information has always been key to warfare. But there is little doubt that warfare is increasingly moving toward a battlefield within the information sphere itself. These are wars directed against the civilian population; these are wars for peoples’ minds. Blockchain technologies could play a significant role in these present and future battles, both defensively and offensively.

References :

DARPA https://www.google.co.th/amp/s/cointelegraph.com/news/pentagon-thinks-blockchain-technology-can-be-used-as-cybersecurity-shield/amp

US Navy http://www.secnav.navy.mil/innovation/Pages/2017/06/BlockChain.aspx

2018 National Defense Authorization Act https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/05/03/could_americas_cyber_competitors_use_blockchain_for_their_defense_113400.html

NIST https://csrc.nist.gov/publications/detail/nistir/8202/draft

https://www.blockchainmagazine.net/u-s-department-of-defense-is-bullish-on-the-blockchain/

http://www.scmp.com/business/china-business/article/2136188/beijing-signals-it-wants-become-front-runner-blockchain

https://www.cbinsights.com/research/future-of-information-warfare/

Ethereum: Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

Ethereum is described in Wikipedia as an “an open-source, public, blockchain-based distributed computing platform featuring smart contract functionality“.

How does it differ from Bitcoin? Well Bitcoin is open-source, public, distributed, and block-chain based. The difference is principally found in the terms “computing platform” and “smart contract functionality”. And there are other differences as well.

Ethereum is only two years old. It was the brainchild of wunderkind Vitalik Buterin, a Bitcoin developer, and while initial funds for the project were raised in mid-2014, the network went live in mid-2015. A foundation under Swiss law manages Ethereum.

The motivation was to have better scaling than Bitcoin, both horizontally, in terms of transaction speed, and vertically, in terms of use cases supported (implemented via smart contracts). It also has a better specified development plan, with 0, 1, and 2 versions of the software having been implemented, and version 3 (Metropolis) currently in testing.

It has been a great success, and Ether, the coin of Ethereum, now has the number two market cap among all cryptocurrencies at around $29 billion. Its value has risen dramatically during 2017, rising from $8 to $300.

 

256px-Ethereum_logo_2014.svg.png

Ethereum logo CC-BY-3.0

Contracts

There are two types of accounts in Etherland. One can have a regular cryptocurrency account, or an account can represent a smart contract. There is a virtual machine (EVM) that is said to be “Turing complete” and that supports multiple scripting languages in which contract rules can be specified.

The idea of smart contracts has been around for over two decades; blockchain with broad programmability on the chain provides a very useful technology for their implementation.

Smart contracts allow value to be exchanged between agents without existing trusted relationships. Sort of like escrow, but much more streamlined. The basic idea is to cut out the expense and complications associated with middlemen.

Use cases being explored for such smart contracts include:

  • Real estate leases or purchases
  • Securities settlement
  • Supply chain management
  • Governance, including voting
  • Intellectual property protection

The number of currently existing use cases is few at present, however, and they tend to be simple and related to the Ether coin itself. Some have argued that smart contracts are much harder to implement in practice than many imagine. A recent interesting one is Prism Exchange, which allows you to hold a variety of altcoins across multiple exchanges from a single application.

Mining

Ether is much quicker to mine than Bitcoin, and can process 25 transactions per second. Transaction fees are also much lower than Bitcoin, around 8 times lower currently. Blocks are generated every 12 seconds, as opposed to the 10 minute target with Bitcoin.

Like Bitcoin, Ether is mined via Proof of Work, but the intent is to move to Proof of Stake (some measure of ownership) over time. A different cryptographic hash problem, Ethash, is solved, and with this hash Ether does not benefit greatly from mining with ASICs and is therefore accessible to CPU and especially to GPU mining. “Ethash PoW is memory hard, making it basically ASIC resistant.”

Basically the algorithm is designed to consume memory bandwidth and to be GPU-friendly. So it is good news for Nvidia and AMD and Intel.

Enterprise Ethereum Alliance

The Enterprise Ethereum Alliance has grown to over 150 organizations as members and includes some of the most important technology companies and largest banks. Its purpose is to address enterprise requirements for smart contracts and blockchains. The founding members are shown in the graphic below. Mastercard and Cisco are two major companies who have also joined recently.

Banks, in particular, have interest in permissioned blockchains, so that they can retain control of their customer relationships. There is a natural tension between open distributed trust of the blockchain and centralized trust that banks provide today.

It is an exciting time. How blockchain will be deployed by the financial industry, and how it will disrupt the industry are open questions. Smart contracts allow blockchain to be even more disruptive because they provide the tools for disintermediation. Jamie Dimon may not want his traders to trade Bitcoin, but he sure wants a seat at the Ethereum “smart contracts” table.

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