Women Revolutionizing Blockchain: Cryptocurrencies for Change

Wednesday, June 12, 2019
A man stands near an advertisement of a cryptocurrency exchange in Tokyo. Advertisements such as this reflect how crypto culture has amplified harmful gender stereotypes REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Speaker
Amber Baldet

Cofounder and CEO, Clovyr

Presider

Adjunct Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Will cryptocurrencies radically alter the world's financial institutions? If so, will women help redesign them and will their needs as economic actors be taken into account? Amber Baldet, cofounder and CEO of Clovyr, joined the Women and Foreign Policy program for a discussion about women as both cryptocurrency entrepreneurs and users. 

 

POWELL: OK, I think we should go ahead and get started. I want to welcome everyone. My name is Catherine Powell. I’m an adjunct senior fellow with Women and Foreign Policy here. Thank you so much for coming out.

I wanted to especially recognize a couple of our advisory committee members who are here this evening: Masuda Sultan and Agnes Metzger. Thank you very much for your ongoing support and advice.

We have many experts in the room so we’re going to structure this as a fairly interactive discussion, and what—I’m going to introduce Amber in just a moment, and then I’m going to basically pose a series of questions, sort of interview format, and we’ll do that just maybe for about fifteen, twenty minutes, and then open it up to you.

So you can—I’m not going to read her whole bio, but you can see how impressive her background is. She is the cofounder and CEO of Clovyr. She led JPMorgan's blockchain efforts. She has been listed as one of Fortune’s “40 Under 40” list of most influential young people in business. And, you know, I think we can think of her as the Daenerys Targaryen of blockchain—(laughter)—and I don’t know—you know, for those of you who follow Games of Thrones and saw the last episode, maybe we’ll just, you know, bracket that—(laughter)—that last episode part—but she is pretty much of a, you know, real powerhouse in this field.

So let me just start by asking—because I think many of us come to this with different levels of understanding of what blockchain is, and I definitely put myself in the I’m-still-learning category. We did provide a couple of handouts outside which you are welcome to pick up afterwards, including a blog that I did maybe a year ago and a couple pieces that Amber did at a much higher level of expertise.

But I did want to start with just sort of really the basic question of what exactly is blockchain and cryptocurrency, and how does it fit into the broader landscape of financial technology or fintech?

BALDET: OK, well, if you ask thirty different people in this industry, you’ll probably get thirty different answers, and there is certainly a varying degree of expertise in the room at this point. So I apologize to anyone who already works at a blockchain startup and is going to feel extremely explained down to.

But it is—I think it is important to kind of level set the verbiage you use when you talk about this technology because you can end up in very different places depending on what you are talking about. And we’re not going to get super professorial here, but just so that we have something to look at, I brought a couple slides.

So I think the first thing to realize is just that there is no such thing as the blockchain. It’s a type of technology. Just as you think of a spreadsheet as there are many, many spreadsheets—you probably have thousands of them on your computer right now—you would never say, let’s put it on the spreadsheet. There are many of them.

And even when we talk about different spreadsheet applications, some of you might use Excel, some of you might use Google Sheets, some of you might use, I guess, Numbers or whatever the Mac equivalent of that is. And so they’re all a little bit different, and they don’t actually interoperate despite the fact that they do the same thing. But they are a spreadsheet.

So there’s lot of blockchains. The ones that are listed here—these are their icons or their logos—these are all public blockchain networks, and what the means is that if you wanted to, you could go home right now, download the software, run it on your computer with varying degrees of ease. Let me tell you it is not easy, but it’s getting easier. And you can connect to the network. No one can stop you. You don’t need to ask anyone to participate. You do not need to buy any software. If you would like to and you have the expertise, you can download and audit the software yourself, look at it. It’s all open source which means there is nothing hidden, there’s nothing proprietary, and there is no company in charge of this.

You can run it in our country, you can run it in any other country around the world. You can run it in the cloud, on infrastructure that you don’t control. You can run it on your own computer in your basement and not tell anybody about it. You can connect to the public Internet, you could connect through privacy-preserving networks like Tor, and because of that, it’s considered this open, public access sort of system, just like the Internet.

What’s different about it, though, is that—and before we move ahead, I guess, I’ll say there’s also distributed ledgers, so you hear about enterprise blockchain and—don’t call it a blockchain; it’s a distributed ledger. These are more of the permission systems where you do need to ask somebody, but often the software is still open source. They function a little differently. We can talk about that later—before we go to that.

But the difference is that, rather than just the Internet where you get to transmit data around the network, you can transmit scarce representations of something around a blockchain network. So often what you hear about now is something like bitcoin, which is just one example of a type of a token. It’s scarce. We know what the actual supply existing is and the monetary curve of it is predefined in the code from day one. There is no sort of federal reserve that can change that policy; it simply is what it is, and because of that, the non-modifiability of it provides a certain degree of risk reduction from people in understanding the future curve of the currency. And so, because of that, people will invest in it knowing that new coins will come out at a certain rate.

But that’s simply bitcoin, and what it is attempting to do is to be money, right, or a digital store of value—we can all argue about these things—but it’s something that when you send it to somebody else, you don’t have it anymore. And that’s the fundamental difference of the Internet. If you take a picture on your phone and you send it to your kids or your mom, you have a copy of that picture and now they have a copy of that picture, and you are both happy. But if you wanted to send something like a dollar or, theoretically, a vote—although we can talk about voting on a blockchain later; it’s technically very difficult—or intellectual property rights, or a land title, or a share of stock, you can’t actually do that right now in a peer-to-peer way without asking somebody else. You ask a bank, you ask a transfer agent, you ask a custodian. There’s any number of intermediaries that you have to involve.

And the difference here is that it literally is just like cash. You can hand it over the Internet, you no longer have it anymore, and everyone can agree that that transaction happened and can never unhappen. That’s what a blockchain is. (Pause.)

Do you want—should we just go through the rest of these right now or do you want to go ahead?

POWELL: If you—whatever, it’s up to you.

BALDET: So I would just say that the winners right now are not clear, and it’s kind of like standing in the ’90s and trying to imagine the Internet. Anybody who tells you they know exactly what’s going to happen is probably trying to sell you something. (Laughter.)

But, you know, when people—when Apple first launched the iPhone, people thought they were crazy, right? And now they really have such a large market share, right? So I think that even looking at who is so hyper-dominant now does not necessarily mean that there is not going to be a different innovation or a different kind of market pressure that is going to change winners very quickly.

And so the differences in designs that we saw—this gets a little technical so we don’t need to spend too much time here—but you should really understand that, as I said, there’s no such thing as the blockchain. The technology itself really spans a spectrum. And it’s not like someone just sat down one day and, quote, unquote, “invented the blockchain.” It’s actually a confluence of several different technologies that were invented over 30 years ago, really, but just had never been put together in this sort of novel way. And so, depending on how you mix and match those components, you can come up with something where you have an open, public, trustless or trust-minimized sort of system, or you can have something that is a closed kind of single operator system but provides strong guarantees about consistency of information.

POWELL: Let me, if I can jump in—

BALDET: Yes.

POWELL: —because I want to—I want to bring in the gender dimension of this and then come back to some of the broader issues around blockchain, the sector, and how we should think about potential regulation that might get to some additional information you have on the slides.

But let me—let me bring in the gender dimension and ask just how you negotiate, being a woman who has been very active both in blockchain—and of course the fact that women are underrepresented in the digital economy more broadly, you know, beyond blockchain and cryptocurrency.

If you could talk a bit about the barriers to access for women, other underrepresented groups in the digital economy and blockchain—what are those barriers, how might we think about overcoming them?

BALDET: Sure. So there’s not anything that is specifically magical about blockchain or cryptocurrency as to how we address gender or other underrepresented populations, and in a different way. It’s just like the rest of tech—(laughter). It’s not—it’s not just a pipeline problem.

You know, I—coming from more of a traditional finance background, there’s also not a whole lot of women there, you know, and cryptocurrency sits at this confluence of—well, there is open-source software, there is financial services, there is cryptography, there is kind of this cypherpunk hacker thing going on. All of them are a bit bereft of women. Cryptography is actually an interesting separate use case in that there are a large number of very well-known female cryptographers, but still, as a percentage of the field, it’s small.

So in the middle of this you have this new kind of cryptocurrency thing, which is exactly what I was saying: this is technology that has existed for the last 30 years, and what I found to be different is that there is this perception—people will say, it’s open; go, do your own research, you can learn about it. The code is open source, audit it yourself—as though all of us are just going to sit down and, you know, be able to read through that ourselves. But because you can learn about it, there is this idea that it’s a greenfield meritocracy and does not actually inherit all of the prior biases of the contributing technologies. So overcoming that is a challenge and something I think we’re working on.

I do think that people have been very dedicated from the beginning of putting up women in blockchain groups and focusing on it—almost overcompensating in that way. That’s how I ended up on all these lists, I guess. I don’t know. I didn’t—(laughs)—you know, you get on one and then, I think, you know, they just kind of replicate themselves. And because of that there is a lot of opportunity for people that would like to enter the field.

POWELL: And I wrote—I co-wrote a report a couple of years ago on women in technology and emerging economies that looked at—you know, some countries, women are actually pretty well—or girls are pretty well represented in—you know, majoring in computer science in college, but it’s more of the transition from college into jobs that gets tricky. Here, this is such a new field that some of the pipeline issues may still be not entirely clear.

But let me ask a different type of question, which is not just women’s participation as workers in the digital economy—or here, blockchain economy—but the benefits for women of blockchain. There’s cryptocurrency but there are other applications as well that might be helpful for empowering women and girls. I wonder if you could talk about that as well.

BALDET: Sure. I mean, I think in order to kind of break down the barriers to bring more women into the field in general—as I said, it’s not a blockchain problem; it’s a dismantle-system-of-patriarchy problem. (Laughs.) But that’s perhaps a conversation for another day.

When it comes to adoption and usage, it’s a little similar in that public cryptocurrencies are very helpful for people who need to do things outside of a traditional system. So there’s a flight to using them when the traditional system does not meet your needs or you have been disenfranchised in some way.

So some of the first usages were for cross-border remittances. If you were to send a Western Union, MoneyGram, you know, it might cost you twenty dollars. If you are trying to send forty dollars, that’s a very high transaction cost. And so being able to do that for pennies or less on the dollar was very compelling.

Now of course, as I mentioned, we had the—if you think of public cryptocurrency as an actual cash equivalent, the difference is—and this is where people start talking about money laundering—but you generally don’t roll up somewhere with a truck full of cash. But you can take a QR code that represents many millions of dollars, put it in a pocket, and cross a border. And so it’s kind of like high-powered in that way, and that’s what has tended to scare people. And now we start talking about regulation, and gatekeeping, and know your customer, and AML in ways that we don’t necessarily just talk about, you know, buying a coffee with five dollars.

So you see populations that cannot get bank accounts in other countries looking to cryptocurrency as an alternative. You see—there’s a specific group called Code to Inspire in Afghanistan where women are not allowed to hold bank accounts or have part-time jobs. The girls learn to code and then they are paid in bitcoin, and then there is kind of a convenience store where they can buy actual goods there. And so they don’t have to ask anyone. You can take your wallet with you, and you can hold this wallet—it’s not really a physical wallet; it’s just on your phone, or you can even write it out on a piece of paper if you want. Nobody can really take that away from you, right? As long as you have it, it can be private in that way.

There’s also applications to other groups that have difficulty getting traditional banking services whether that’s consensual sex workers or various other kinds of excluded populations in the LGBT community, people that have been kind of false-positived away from banking rails.

POWELL: Interesting. OK, so then it sounds like women then can use this as a tool to get around some of the restrictions, whether it’s you need your husband’s permission to open a bank account or other access to economic tools.

You’ve also written, spoken about surveillance capitalism and some of the privacy concerns there. How can we think about blockchain as a way of addressing some of those broader privacy concerns?

BALDET: Yeah, it’s an interesting problem. I think if you look at the way that disenfranchised populations are treated, it’s an interesting way to see kind of how you might be treated later under less great conditions. And so as we’ve seen that kind of financial exclusionism, when you look at—or you’ll hear about a cashless society being this great thing that’s coming, right, like, you don’t—we no longer need cash at all; in fact, in the Scandinavian countries they have almost completely eliminated paper cash, and people are very happy about it. Other countries who have done this include China, and you end up with very different systems. When you implement a cashless society what that means is that there is an intermediary for every single transaction that you make.

Right now you might pull a five-dollar bill out of your pocket at a farmer’s market, buy some asparagus, and call it a day. Now, you might use your credit card, and it’s great because you don’t—you forgot your cash. Instead you are using Square. Somebody swipes it on your phone, and it feels convenient. But the thing is you are actually asking a bank to approve that transaction. If you used your credit card, yes, it’s because there’s an extension of credit, but even with a debit, it’s really their contractual obligation to honor the commitment that the bank has made to you to hold your money, and they can at any time say, actually, we don’t think that’s asparagus.

So in a cashless society, public cryptocurrency becomes the digital equivalent to cash. It is really the only way that you can do something privately. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, if you don’t have anything to hide, that you don’t necessarily need this privacy. But there are some interesting First Amendment arguments specially around freedom of association, for example, that the government should not be able to see if you have, say, donated to the ACLU, or the NRA, or the Southern Poverty Law Center; that if they can observe that there is a chilling effect, and so it’s already constitutionally protected.

And so as we move towards a fully cashless society, we’re going to need to confront how we can handle privacy in that system. Cryptocurrency might be the only actually bullet-proof solution therein. So we don’t know yet.

POWELL: So let me just ask you one more question then I want to open it up, so folks can be thinking about what you might want to ask, and that is what you see as the future of blockchain and cryptocurrency five, ten, fifteen years out on the horizon, and what if anything do you think is the role for potential government regulation?

BALDET: The regulatory question is challenging. I was able to testify to the House agricultural committee earlier this year during some hearings about whether or not public cryptocurrency should be considered cash, security, or commodity, which is an interesting question. But I do think that, especially in the U.S., where we’re very business focused, we might be missing a larger question around what it means to be rebuilding or building the next generation Internet infrastructure. We truly take for granted that much of the Internet as we know it was developed in the West and with our sorts of ideals in mind, and that it has been a democratizing force around the world. But if you look at other countries that are embracing cryptocurrency quite early, they have different ideas potentially about how these networks should work. And without proper privacy controls, you can end up in a situation where our entire national economy is queryable like a database by anyone and any actor in the world. And we probably don’t want that.

It’s difficult—it’s a difficult conversation to have because there are very good arguments on the side that you do not want to have completely private digital currency either because of money laundering, and terrorist financing and other things. But we have the same issues with real cash, you know, or fiat cash, sovereign cash—whatever you want to call it.

We have the—you know, we don’t necessarily put potholes in our roads to prevent bank robberies, and we’re in a bit of the same situation. It’s similar to the—what were called the “Crypto Wars” of the ’90s, which had nothing to do with crypto as bitcoin but about strong cryptography, and the export controls around software coming out of the U.S., and how is was able to be used around the world.

There are competing cryptographic schemes globally—and a lot of times when I say crypto I actually mean cryptography—(laughs)—you know, and there’s a fantastically educated, and insightful, and motivated group of people that cross the boundaries between some of this advocacy for cryptocurrency as we know it now, and it looks kind of cool and sexy, and actual cryptography problems, information security problems, and national security implications of information security policy. So there are people working at that intersection, but it’s often overshadowed by the hype of what’s the price of bitcoin today, and that’s very disappointing.

POWELL: Wow, OK. I have so many more questions, but I want to—

BALDET: Could I answer the last part of the question that you had?

POWELL: About—

BALDET: I feel like I totally skipped something.

POWELL: About government regulation?

BALDET: No, I think it—

POWELL: Or sort of the future of blockchain?

BALDET: Oh, right, data, data.

POWELL: Oh, yes.

BALDET: OK, there we go—data. I knew I was forgetting something: data.

And what I work on at Clovyr, we’re working on infrastructure deployment, and orchestration, and developer tooling. It’s very unsexy, but it’s important to the actual kind of pipes and plumbing of the Internet and when we think about how things run and connect together.

And so you hear a lot these days about data privacy and the changing public sentiment around our privacy and the data that we’re creating—GDPR coming out in Europe, similar California privacy laws—but all of those sorts of regulations govern consensual data relationships that you have with the vendors that you work with. You sign up for a service, you check the box, you are getting something valuable from them, and therefore they can see your data. Some of that might be minimized in the future. They just won’t take as much of it because there is too much risk.

But on the other hand, there are ways that we can start to keep our data locally and privately, and encrypt it ourselves maybe, whether it’s on your phone or on a personal cloud, and then allow people to do things with your data without them actually seeing it or having access to it necessarily.

And so you can think of it as the application coming to your data rather than you sending the data to the application. And that has really interesting possibilities when we talk about machine learning over private data, about businesses being able to derive the same kind of business insights they get from these massive data lakes but actually being able to unbundle those lakes, which would be great for everybody.

And also the competitiveness within industry verticals, so with the way that Google and Amazon are hoovering up this data right now, they can compete with almost any specific industry and the leaders in that industry. So within the banking industry, for example, there might be five companies that have enough data to really run their own credible machine learning and what they will now call artificial intelligence and cognitive computing, but whatever. It’s just math. But you need a lot of data to run it, so you have to be very big.

But what you can do with some of this data coordination technology, which does not mean you put your data on the blockchain. I think anyone who tells you to put your sensitive data on the blockchain does not understand privacy. But with some of this new privacy technology, you could get a lot of minor players in an industry to actually collaborate without disclosing their data to each other and become more competitive. So fostering that kind of technology and that kind of research could be really important to both antitrust considerations, but also just general market competitiveness where we’re seeing these—kind of a narrowing of the field.

POWELL: OK, well, as I said, I could—I have several more questions, but I’m going to hold my fire and open this up. So, as is our tradition, just put your card sideways if you have a question, and—

BALDET: That’s good. I’ve never heard that before.

POWELL: Yes. (Laughs.) And then—also, I should have said up front that this is on the record, so this is being recorded so that those who couldn’t come this evening can access it online.

Let me start with Masuda, and then I’ll go around to other people.

Q: Is this on?

POWELL: Yes.

Q: Thank you so much for this session. I am so excited to come here today.

Amber, I wanted to ask you, we were just at Blockchain for Social Impact Conference, and I have limited engagement with this space, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the social impact solutions seem to be not very scalable. They all seem to be very new to me, and so I wanted to ask if there were projects particularly related to women and girls that you thought were very scalable or were being scaled at a high level.

BALDET: So this is a very specific question. I did get to participate on Newsweek’s blockchain for impact awards this year, so I think we screened over three or four hundred different projects that are trying to achieve impact—whatever that specifically means. It’s very hard to measure.

I don’t quite understand why blockchain has suddenly gotten this patina of being so applicable to social problems other than it opens things up, but there is also an inherent conflict, I believe—I’m not sure if this is true, but it’s my belief—that publicly accessible blockchain networks function best as a commons, and that’s where everyone participates, and everyone can get something back for what they have put in.

It seems to be fundamentally incompatible with a venture capital model, and so we saw these kinds of—the explosion of tokens, and ICOs, and things last year. A lot of that has imploded. A lot of investment gains that people have made is about them selling thing downstream; not so much about actual adoption and growth of the projects themselves.

So where social impact projects, to me, seem most promising is where they are community based and where the participants—they are working together, and it is a small way. But rather than scaling it to one global project where you get hockey-stick growth of a million adopted users, you can spam the same kind of projects many times for local populations.

So the—one of the groups that I got to do a writeup on—which was great—was Grassroots Economics—I hope that was correct—but they started before blockchain, going into communities in Kenya and other nearby countries, and creating a web of trust because the problem was that, at the top of the—at the top of the food chain in the country there was too much volatility in the national currency, and it was causing currency shortages in local markets. And people couldn’t keep up with price fluctuations; they had no access to transparent pricing information, right?

So by creating, leveraging the local web of trust, if I interact with these kinds of retailers, they pay my teacher, I pay the grocer, we all—like, we know each other and we’re neighborhood there—they are able to extend each other local credit and create—literally create their own currency that was not pegged to the national currency.

Now if you do this at enough scale in the right country it would probably just be straight up illegal from the beginning, and they did run into some regulatory issues, but they have now moved that on to the blockchain. They are working with the government, and it has really eased liquidity, and it is now running the same project but in 14 different places, I think. And it’s not all connected in one thing, and there is no profit model.

POWELL: I’m going to come over here to Patricia.

BALDET: That wasn’t a girls’ thing, but I’m not sure I actually know a girls’ one.

Q: No, but this follows directly on this conversation, and I really appreciate the clarity of your presentation, Amber. It’s really, really excellent. There have been other meetings here at the Council where it has been more obfuscating, and this is very clear. So thank you very much. (Laughter.)

But I want to follow up on the—

BALDET: It gets me in trouble, but I try. (Laughs.)

Q: But it’s important because I want to follow up on the gender question. So I have done work on the Grameen Bank. In the end of the ’70s, this was the Muhammad Yunus and presenting credit for women at the household level, this is going to be a breakthrough, women are going to no longer be stuck in their households, they’re going to—so it succeeded in some ways, and it failed in major ways because there was no other amplifying factor so that women could use the credit, women could benefit, could become entrepreneurs, could pay off their debts. They went into debt.

And so I’m just wondering is this moment—and I think the—I hear how—and what you just said about keeping it local is very important, but I worry about the adverse impact if women think this is going to be a way—especially at marginal populations, if they think this is a way that they are going to be able to have access to resources and be able to fund things that they didn’t think they could do before. So I’m just wondering what are the controls that protect—not regulations—but the protections for women who are least able to—in the position right now to protect themselves?

BALDET: There are no protections right now. Using a lot of these currencies, if you try to send money to—it’s kind of like you put in a phone number, but it’s a little more complicated than a phone number, to identify another wallet. If you put in the wrong number you might lose your money. If you forget your password, you might lose your money. There’s a whole number of scenarios where you might lose your money, and in a way, it’s considered a feature of the system because you have full control over it.

I worry about the same thing. I think how difficult it is for people to simply manage their passwords; now we’re going to ask them to manage their private keys, and it’s going to get a lot of people in trouble.

And I have this conversation—I know many brilliant, wonderful academic, you know, hacker, cypherpunk, lovely people who have been fighting this fight for thirty years of saying, everyone should care about their privacy, everyone should know this, everyone should learn to code. But that is such a myopic view. And a lot of them tend to look the same as well, right? So they are talking—it’s a very insular echo chamber that you should think what I think, and then, you know, we’ll solve this problem together.

So we do work on usability as a whole around all of this software so that it will get better. Early adopters and early projects are the most worse off. I think that, much like logging into Facebook by—you know, you can use your Facebook login elsewhere on the Internet, that stuff will come, but it’s a couple of years out.

What is interesting to follow, though, is now called DeFi, which is like decentralized finance. The hashtag is like D-E-F-I—DeFi. And this is a number of solutions where people are trying to replicate things like what you are talking about—credit markets, microloans, property transfer, fractional tokenization of larger assets and things. And it’s really promising and really interesting, but there is no regulation.

And the difference is if you look at something like bitcoin, bitcoin is a real-time gross settlement system in banking terms. That means that there is value, it goes somewhere else, it settles. It was explicitly created as a reaction to the economic meltdown in 2008. It is not meant as a system of credit, it does not work—it does not enjoy short selling, you cannot really do securities lending with it. People have tried to retrofit a variety of those kind of things onto it, but it wasn’t made to do that.

When you look at some of these other networks, like Ethereum where the decentralized finance stuff is happening and some others, they function—they allow more, they like to call it programmable money, so they are made to handle extensions of credit. The problem is that right now there is no way to accurately—at all—manage risk. And just because you have offered someone a loan and then can repay it does not mean that you—like, general people, regular people do not know how to price risk. And until you have a robust market and way to get competing quotes so that you can figure out and automatically tell people what they’re getting themselves into, this stuff is off-the-charts risky.

POWELL: I have Naureen Kabir.

Q: So I would love to hear you talk more about terrorist financing and money laundering. I work with the—for the NYPD’s Intel Bureau. And you’re right, our money-laundering and terrorist-finance cases are difficult enough with conventional ways of transferring money. But I’d love to hear more from you about the other security challenges that you foresee that exist with cryptocurrencies and blockchains and things that we perhaps aren’t even thinking through. We’ve obviously seen an increase in individuals expressing interest in transferring money via cryptocurrencies. You know, it’s a world that I think we’re just starting to get insight into, so I’d love to hear more about some of the challenges you think exist in that realm.

BALDET: Yeah. It’s a bit of a misnomer that bitcoin is private. It’s pseudonymous at best. But it is pretty easy, especially if you are targeting someone or a group of someones, if you can access their computers, their network traffic, variety of other things, you can find out what all is going on.

Q: But if you can’t and you’re relying on legal process.

BALDET: Right. So the entire ledger is public and there are a number of companies, like Elliptic and Chainalysis, that perform—they do analysis over the publicly available blockchains. And when it comes to something like bitcoin, it’s a lot more fruitful because it is not actually as private as people think.

Now, criminals are often not quite as smart as they think they are, and so as long as they keep using bitcoin that would be great for everybody. The thing is there are cryptocurrencies that are more private than bitcoin. Something like Monero is one example, another is called Zcash. I am on the board of the Zcash Foundation for what it’s worth, which is a nonprofit that seeks to work on internet privacy.

But even when you’re looking at something that is meant to be, as an academic project, a creation of a fully private, digital currency, there are things like it features selective disclosure from the beginning. So if you would like to disclose your transactions you can. For example, you could walk into a bank and just as you open a bank account, you could open a Zcash wallet and have agreed to share this information with your bank.

What that means, though, is that you can end up creating different kind of classes of this digital money. And it’s one of the problems with bitcoin. It’s not actually fungible. Like, did you hear about the NHS ransomware hack? I think it was almost a year-and-a-half ago at this point. But they were—they were basically ransomed, all their data was encrypted, and they had—they wanted some bitcoin in order to decrypt it. But you could watch, you could look at the malware, you could look at the address that was in there, and you could watch it on the public blockchain, you could watch the bitcoins kind of coming in to unlock these files. And first of all, they only made about thirty thousand dollars, which I think people were expecting it to be a lot more. But forever, you can trace those coins and see that they were involved in this—in this hack or this crime. And because of that, it creates nonfungible currency.

It’s like, you know, I guess there’s a bit of an anecdote that every hundred-dollar bill has some trace of cocaine on it in the U.S. Certainly true in the ’70s, I don’t know about now. But you are not held responsible for that, right? Like, if you put a hundred-dollar bill in an ATM, it is not legally your responsibility to have known that or cleared that.

So the issue that banks deal with is understanding how many hops back they’re responsible for because, in a way, it’s significantly more traceable than actual cash is, but we’ve created this kind of social contract and business contract that as long as you’re following traditional AML rules, you know, ten thousand dollars, this kind of thing, you can put cash in an ATM.

And we can do the same thing. We can say you’re transacting twenty-five dollars’ worth of bitcoin, that’s fine. You flip flags of, you know, we can look at layered transactions, things that add up, and use all of today’s systems. It’s the exact same thing. The problem is simply that they’re not interconnected right now and, in a way, it’s almost not disincentivizing, but it’s, like, ironic that we could be doing a better job of knowing what was happening with these transactions if they were integrated with the traditional financial system because then we would have ties that we don’t have right now. Right now it is a bit of the wild West.

POWELL: OK. I’m going to—did you have—you good?

BALDET: Yeah.

POWELL: I’m going to come over here to Cindy Chin and then I’ll come back around this way. Yes.

Q: I don’t know how to turn this on. Sorry. OK.

Hi, Amber. It’s great to see you again.

My question is actually more on supply chain. And I wanted to know what the landscape is like today. I know what it was like last year, but I wanted to hear from you and your perspectives on how it’s come a year later.

BALDET: Right. So we’ve been talking about money, and if you’re not in this every day you might wonder why we’re all of a sudden talking about supply chains. That’s because anything you can track on a spreadsheet, you can track with a blockchain as a data structure. And so there’s been a lot of interest in track-and-trace and have a provable, immutable record of a good through a supply chain.

I think it’s very promising, as it has been from the beginning, I think because just deal with regular data as opposed to dealing with financial assets it, like, removes a big barrier to entry. But the problem—the problem there is not technical. The challenge is industry coordination and competitiveness and none of these people trust each other. And you get a big player like Maersk and IBM, right, like, when they did that project TradeLens I think it’s called, and, you know, they wouldn’t—somebody has to bootstrap this thing, and there’s a lot of R&D costs that’s going into the early networks. And the large companies who see first-mover advantage will flag run, they will put up the money, they’ll put in the teams, they’ll invest. But because of that, it doesn’t look like a mature, decentralized network where we’re all a group of equals and peers, and so it’s difficult for participants that are coming in, these other companies, to trust and know that somehow Maersk isn’t getting something extra out of it. And that was covered in the press a little bit, so I’m sure you know about that already.

So in the last year, I think that—I mean, I saw a really interesting project actually a couple of weeks ago that was doing oil and gas tracking. And I think they’re coming along. You know, it’s, like I said, it’s not a technical challenge, so it comes down to industry lobbying, standards setting, and, like, the will to do it. And like I said, getting all these, like, smaller players to be able to collaborate is a real strength of the technology. So maybe—maybe—Maersk wasn’t the right player to do that initially. But no doubt, the supply chain will be on a variety of blockchains in a decade.

So you want traceability from your farmer to a tomato in your fridge? At what point do you expect the privacy to stop? Like, at what point do you want to be protected? Sure, it’s great if some head of lettuce it turns out it has salmonella on it and there’s a recall, but do you want your health insurer to know what you’re eating and if you bought enough vegetables this week? So supply chain also, at the last mile, has a whole host of privacy concerns.

POWELL: Let me come—I can’t read your card.

Q: Alex.

POWELL: Alex—OK, let me come to Alex and then I’m going to come back over to Maryum. Yes.

Q: Hey, I appreciate you speaking. I run a different startup in the blockchain and finance space. And I would echo the sentiments, that was very concise and clear the way you presented it. And I think to the point that, you know, essentially, it’s a database or, you know, the concept of a database in a different way. That, to me, is morally neutral, just like all technologies.

And specifically, I wonder how you think about—right now, I think there’s opportunity in that the culture of this powerful technology is not fully defined. There’s a few different groups from corporate people, antigovernment initiators, some scam artists, and other groups. And I wonder—and I think there’s opportunity there more than I think it’s easy to get lost in the technical jargon. But there’s really culture that’s going to define a lot of the outcomes and I wonder how you think about strategies or tactics around an industry that’s dominated by young white men, such as myself, to influence culture in a way that’s more focused on gender equality and other types of disenfranchised groups.

BALDET: Yeah. I think it’s interesting that we have these conversations about fostering usage of underrepresented populations at the same time that the types of folks that you’re mentioning are having conversations about their fears of being de-platformed and becoming oppressed because you can’t shout on Twitter about things.

So technology that allows you to do something in an un-censorable and unstoppable way without having to ask someone, I don’t know if I would ever say technology is morally neutral. I think it does carry a lot of the intent of its creators, whether they intend it to do so or not. But it is important to recognize that that means that this technology will be used for a variety of things.

You know, I sometimes say, which is a stolen quote, but that every tool is a weapon if you hold it right. And we cannot put the genie back in the bottle. If we—if we prevent usage by people who just want to do normal, everyday things, then the only people who are going to use this are people that are looking to share hate speech and do terrorist financing and everybody’s going to say, see, that was bad from the beginning, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So by focusing on use cases where you are fostering usage for underrepresented populations where we’re finding people that have been excluded and not just, like, building something for them, but actually involving them in that process, especially as we see one-half of the global population coming online over the next decade, right—this is, like, three billion people getting the first internet access forever—and, you know, we worry certainly in the U.S. saying it’s 23 percent of people are considered either unbanked or underbanked, meaning that they use things like cash advances and other outside-of-the-standard-banking-system practices. How does a cashless society affect them here? That’s one question.

But how you get people to participate in their own economic life that have simply never had access to traditional financial tools before, I think that hopefully the answers to those problems will absolutely dwarf this kind of usage that you’re never going to be able to excise from the system. And having that kind of conversation and being super vocal about how you want to see that world, especially coming from someone who looks that way, is very important, so please advocate.

And I appreciate that. Thank you.

POWELL: Great. Let’s come to Maryum Saifee.

Q: Hi. Maryum Saifee. I’m a CFR international affairs fellow and I’m working with an organization called Human Rights Foundation, so they work with dissidents and journalists from authoritarian regimes.

My question is, in countries of crisis, like, that are undergoing crisis, like, I’m thinking Venezuela with hyperinflation, what applications can blockchain or cryptocurrency have in those situations?

BALDET: That’s a great question. I’m surprised we didn’t touch on that already. But definitely Venezuela is an interesting case in that there has been some organic adoption both of bitcoin, but also of Zcash. The backstory there a little bit was that people started mining bitcoin because the energy there is subsidized and because of that you could kind of be doing it for free. The entire—the entire security model of bitcoin is based on real-world economics of how expensive electricity is. It’s not based on fancy crazy math.

And so then there was—there were crackdowns, there was the government would go in and arrest people and actually take their hardware and then we heard they were using it to mine themselves. Then they put out the petro, which was, like, a government-backed attempt at some cryptocurrency, which was a hilarious disaster. But because of that, there was a lot of awareness and so for a while, we saw something. People were using this bitcoin to literally import food and to buy goods that they needed, which was great.

But we also saw usage of something like Zcash as a temporary hedge or a temporary intermediary currency to move into dollars, because you can’t just go directly, right, through the FX markets there, and so using that as an intermediary hop into a more stable currency. So we have to think about things like soft-power projection and how do we want to be able to foster the global access to stabilizing currencies. And there certainly are opportunities there.

On the other hand, when you look at something like—I’m sure we’ve all been watching some of the protests in Hong Kong this week. I saw a picture this morning of a number of protesters lining up to pay for subway tickets with cash because since they’ve gone cashless, again, there’s now a link that you would be able to trace people’s location and who had probably been there. Right? And so these are opportunities where we can—

Q: For cash, the revolution.

BALDET: Yeah. Money is, you know—when it’s tied to your phone and it’s tied to your location, there’s no such thing as anonymizing this data. Not only is it trivially reversible, but it’s cross-referenceable. And so especially if there’s a dedicated target or target group, it’s extremely easy to track stuff down these days.

Q: So was that part of the original—

BALDET: Yeah. So certainly there’s applications in those sorts of economies. Also, the Human Rights Foundation does a whole bunch of work around this. They airdropped USBs with bitcoin into North Korea. (Chuckles.) You know, it’s—it is—it’s interesting to give people kind of “money is freedom” kind of as an ideal.

POWELL: Camilla McFarland.

Q: Thank you. A slightly different question. If I can just ask it.

POWELL: Oh, it’s already on. Yeah.

Q: Oh, great. I also work in the blockchain space at ConsenSys, a company building blockchain solutions in enterprise, consumer, all different parts of the industry.

So much of the problem we have when speaking to clients, similar to how you started this lecture, is explaining how blockchain works.

BALDET: Feel free to use those. (Laughter.)

Q: Yeah. No, and I—and you think of sort of how much we use the internet today, but how many times do you either build something on the internet or explain it to someone and find yourself explaining TCP/IP protocols. And so when you do think or will we get to a place where blockchain will just be an inherent part of day-to-day life and people might not even know if it’s blockchain- or Web2-based? Or will it be more of a present, sort of separate conversation always, do you think?

BALDET: Yeah. Well, it’s one of the reasons that I’m working on developer tools, because I think when there’s real applications and people just say, oh, I can put a widget in my sidebar that lets me accept donations or run my own crowdfunding campaign, I don’t have to pay a percentage to Kickstarter, I don’t have to get kicked off Patreon or Patron or whatever because they don’t like my project. When you can just solve people’s problems, then it will be that way.

I used to feel the same way about that when trying to do the banking kind of applications. You know, nobody sits down to build a new trading platform and be, like, let me talk about packet exchange for a little while before we do this. But it’s just the novelty, and so you can’t get away from it.

We really—again, we take for granted, like, people think the internet just, like, popped out in the ’90s when there was that bubble, but, I mean, DARPA projects started in the late ’60s. They were government-funded, there was no expectation of delivering some return on investment, there were no VCs standing over anybody’s shoulders asking them to build something like TCP/IP.

And there were—there is an interesting analogue, though, in that at the time there were a lot of competing standards, just like there are now, and IBM was a major proponent of a specific alternative to TCP/IP, the open standards interchange that they were advocating. And they had all of these enterprises lined up and they were, like, the big guys want it, this is how the internet’s going to look, we’re already connecting to each other over our closed networks using it so, like, just fall in line. And it turned out that this open, lightweight, like, kind of hacky protocol ended up being much more applicable and easy to understand for the developers that needed to build stuff. And here we are.

So I think there’s a lot of applicability to the story of enterprise blockchain now because it’s, like, Groundhog Day of people trying to impose standards. But yeah, like, the winners slide I show, you know, 98 percent of this stuff is just going to be a graveyard in five years.

POWELL: Let me ask—it’s really a follow on, and we probably have time to take one or two more questions if people have them—just how—to what extent we can think of this as a leapfrog technology. So for—you mentioned, what, a third of—is that what you said—a half or a third of the population is coming online in the next decade.

BALDET: A half, yeah.

POWELL: That was just stunning to me, people who don’t have access to the internet, to technology. To what extent does this provide an opportunity the way cell phones did for people just leapfrogged over, you know, landlines?

And then related to this, you mentioned the group in Afghanistan—Inspire, is that what it’s called?

BALDET: Code to Inspire.

POWELL: Code to Inspire, where girls learn to code, get paid in bitcoin. How do groups like that get up and running? I mean, are there people in Afghanistan and countries like that who are starting blockchain, cryptocurrency types of applications? Or is this all coming from the West? I mean, you mentioned the internet started in the West with DARPA. How democratized is this? So it really relates back to the leapfrog question. I guess with cell phones—and I don’t really know the history of that—but to what extent is this sort of motivated by the West helping other countries, you know, kind of come up to speed and how might we think about that in this context?

BALDET: It’s super fascinating and it’s, like, all over the place. The Code to Inspire, one, is a fascinating story. You should definitely Google it. It’s a bit of an outlier in that the founder is a woman who is an—she’s a refugee. She was not able to reenter the United States and is kind of stuck there, but has this—is, like—was a CS professor or graduate, like, had a higher education and was, like, well, what am I going to do here, I need to teach these girls something. And so it’s a very unique story.

But one thing that we see that might be worth looking at is you’ll hear a lot about decentralized identity these days and that you’re going to be able to, say, hold your medical records on the blockchain—please, don’t do that—or, you know, have an attestation about your diploma so that if your university every disappeared you could still prove that it happened, we could prevent all this diploma fraud on LinkedIn. There are certainly applications where we can verify that something is real. You don’t necessarily need a blockchain to do that, but we’ll talk about that another time.

But as we talk about creating those kinds of systems globally, you see large consultancies and large corporates going out and doing them, especially as impact projects by the way, but especially targeting refugee populations for identity projects. And so these are people that are already displaced and do not have agency in the technology that they’re using, are likely to lose their device.

And you have to ask, you know, right now, the closest thing that we have to a local wallet for your digital data is your phone. Ideally, your phone backs up stuff to some private cloud that you have so that if you drop your phone off a bridge you don’t lose everything in your life. But in the case that your phone was taken away from you and you did not have something like that set up, how do they recover that? Well, I guarantee you these consultancies have an answer and it is that they actually maintain a backup copy of everything, they maintain access, the password, the copies of the passwords, the private keys. And so we have created an interesting arbiter of identity that is non-sovereign. Ideally, you would want to have this sort of identity before someone is a refugee. And really, governments where there’s not a problem are not super interested in participating in these things because they want to be the arbiters of identity.

And when we talk about identity, it then immediately gets super complicated because who I am in a government context when I pay my taxes is very different from my social media identity which is very different from my LinkedIn or professional identity perhaps. Being able to publish a blog anonymously as a whistleblower might be important. So it’s very complex and it’s one of the reasons that diversity in this space is incredibly important.

I have seen some of the most naïve implementations of identity from people that simply do not understand internationalization of names, how things change when you get married, like, all of that stuff.

We need to learn from the absolute wreck that has been the digitization of forms for the last thirty years, right, and not—and not do that. But it’s—oh, it’s a critical question.

POWELL: So, yes, go right ahead, Nadia.

Q: So I’m really just trying to—I’m very new to this language and space. I’m a former banker.

So do you see a world where—and I might be misusing it—will everyone have a blockchain?

BALDET: There’s lots of blockchains.

Q: Just as you said something—so, but, you said specific to, like, a refugee.

BALDET: Yeah, everybody would have a wallet in that world.

Q: A wallet.

BALDET: Yeah.

Q: Which would have your—could, which you say you shouldn’t right now, have your medical, your this, your that, all of these things that you may fall off a bridge and your phone, everything gets lost and you need access to these documents and resources.

BALDET: Yeah. You just want to think of it—I know this is—people in the blockchain space have done a real disservice in talking about privacy and local data and take back your data and all this stuff, because there is a model that people understand. I think we all had computers fifteen years ago. Remember before the cloud when you had files on your computer and no one else had access to them? That was—your data was taken back before we all gave it up to the cloud and other people.

So really what we’re talking about is simply we want to have the convenience of access from anywhere, but we want to have the privacy and security of when you had a computer at your house. You want the assurance of a disaster recovery backup system, like why you use Time Machine or AWS or what not, but you don’t necessarily want Google scraping all your files for advertising information.

So you don’t need a blockchain in order to store your data. Your computer will work just fine. But what we can do is we can use blockchain and blockchain-adjacent technology to coordinate that access to log who has access to delegate access to others and share access to that information and facilitate the backups and all this other stuff in a way that might root around some centralized cloud. So you could do this in more of a peer-to-peer way. You can involve the cloud, not involve the cloud.

But it’s all about, like, instead of having one central cloud, we have many, many little clouds and you would have your own kind of little cloud and it can all connect. Again, that’s more around the data, which is a slightly separate challenge to where are my tokens in my wallet. They’re really two adjacent, but very differentiated problems. And when we conflate them, you end up with overengineered solutions where people put your medical records on a blockchain and then someone asks about quantum cryptography decryption and, you know, it’s, like, a rabbit hole from there. We don’t—you don’t need that.

POWELL: Diane.

Q: I’m fairly new to this as well, but I’m curious about how all of these different blockchain approaches actually make money.

BALDET: They don’t because no one owns them, so there would be nobody to get the money. They’re just technology, like the internet. The internet doesn’t make money, right, it just is, it’s a network, right? But what there are is a lot of businesses who are trying to use the technology, just like pets.com in the ’90s. They want to launch their first website on this new type of internet and so they’re looking to create some sort of business value, like, say, we’re going to create an application where you can offer a microloan and someone else can get that loan and we can set up a payment structure and for that we’ll take a percentage of a fee.

The blockchain technology itself and the blockchain network does not make any money off of that. It just exists.

Q: But somebody is maintaining this software.

BALDET: Yes, that’s a great and very astute observation that you do not necessarily get paid for that. It’s a—it’s a sunk cost. In something like the bitcoin network, if you are doing what’s called mining—which we will absolutely not talk about here—(chuckles)—part of securing the network means that you can get paid for your time. And every so often, if you are so lucky, a couple of coins go in your own wallet for your time participating in the network. But not all networks function like that. And as I mentioned earlier, there’s some energy intensiveness involved in always keeping that infrastructure running, and so there’s a lot of work into alternatives that make it almost free to run the networks. But none of them are live and none of them work yet. But yes, there’s huge overhead and people want to be paid for that.

POWELL: Maybe we can just—I want to give you a minute to—

BALDET: I can explain that again later. I feel like I jumped around on that.

POWELL: We only have two minutes left, so I just—I want to ask you maybe just a concluding question and then if you have any concluding remarks, which is just sort of—you know, I think versions of many of the questions are, you know, what can—what do we bring to this party? And so, you know, I’m wondering, kind of thinking ahead, what role, if any, can governments do, not so much regulation, but to support, whether it’s USAID, other development agencies?

And also, you mentioned the woman in Afghanistan who was a student in the United States, computer science. I’m an academic. What role can U.S. universities play to support either people in computer science, business school? What, if anything, can we do to support the growth of this, particularly for people who don’t have as much access, women, other disenfranchised people, people in developing countries?

BALDET: There’s tons of new academic programs. I hear about them every day, you know. Some university, every MBA program, a lot of the legal programs, a lot of government affairs programs or government policy programs are adding, whether it’s a weekend class or an extra certificate or something—

POWELL: I have a colleague who’s teaching a blockchain course, basically, in law school. Yeah.

BALDET: Yeah. And so you do get a lot of kind of active participation from subject matter experts that will come in and talk and things. Of course, that’s not going to scale forever. So, sure, it would be great to include that in the curriculum.

I think why people are interested in it, though, especially in the MBA space, because they saw a lot of people making a lot of money. And that is not necessarily the right question to be asking. And I wonder why, you know, policy, people that are going for a program in policy are so interested in this because it’s, you know, on the cover of Wired and Economics and what not, and they’re not getting a weekend certificate in information security when cybersecurity is by far the largest threat or challenge that we have right now.

And so they are adjacent. And I like to use one as kind of a backdoor for the other. And, you know, similarly, if you’re at a corporate and you could never get funding to go really buy that corporate, you know, cybersecurity stuff you needed, saying it’s for a blockchain project is a great way to get funding. (Laughter.)

And so, you know, I hope that it doesn’t—the programs do not end up with hype and let’s talk about ICOs and let’s talk about, again, cash, security, commodity, taxation. I guess there’s room for all of that, but there are fundamental issues that could be, to your point, you know, a challenge to democracy and access globally. And I hope that people want to and are inspired to spend time working on those challenges first or as well.

POWELL: Thank you so much.

Please join me in thanking Amber for speaking with us. (Applause.)

(END)

This is an uncorrected transcript.

Top Stories on CFR

United States

If the Trump administration succeeds in securing citizenship data, the 2020 census could transform the way in which political power is distributed in the United States.

Democratic Republic of Congo

France

With France raising taxes on big tech firms, Washington says American companies are being unfairly targeted.