Change the way we do business

download-1Banks think it could be the future of financial transactions, while diamond miners hope it will help end the trade in conflict diamonds.

And this week the UK’s chief scientific adviser encouraged the British government to adopt the technology.

But what exactly is it and why is it causing such a stir? Technology of Business (tries) to explain.

Does it have anything to do with bicycles?

No. Blockchain is a method of recording data – a digital ledger of transactions, agreements, contracts – anything that needs to be independently recorded and verified as having happened.

The big difference is that this ledger isn’t stored in one place, it’s distributed across several, hundreds or even thousands of computers around the world.

But how does it work exactly?

Digital records are lumped together into “blocks” then bound together cryptographically and chronologically into a “chain” using complex mathematical algorithms.

This encryption process, known as “hashing” is carried out by lots of different computers. If they all agree on the answer, each block receives a unique digital signature.

“You don’t store details of the transaction, just the fact that it happened and the hash of the transaction,” explains Adrian Nish, head of threat intelligence at BAE Systems.

Once updated, the ledger cannot be altered or tampered with, only added to, and it is updated for everyone in the network at the same time.

What’s so clever about that?

Well, the distributed nature of a blockchain database means that it’s harder for hackers to attack it – they would have to get access to every copy of the database simultaneously to be successful.

It also keeps data secure and private because the hash cannot be converted back into the original data – it’s a one-way process.

So if the original document or transaction were subsequently altered, it would produce a different digital signature, alerting the network to the mismatch.

In theory then, the blockchain method makes fraud and error less likely and easier to spot.

Is this a new thing?

The idea has been around for a couple of decades, but came to prominence in 2008 with the invention of Bitcoin, the digital currency.

Bitcoins are created by computers solving complex mathematical puzzles and this requires lots of computing power and electricity. Blockchain is the technology underpinning it.

But there isn’t just one program – lots of companies, from Ethereum to Microsoft, are developing their own blockchain services. Some are open to all (“unpermissioned”, in the jargon), others restrict access to a select group (“permissioned”).

Why are the banks so excited?

“Banks do very similar things to each other, even though they compete,” says Simon Taylor, vice-president of blockchain research and development at Barclays.

“They basically keep our money safe and a big computer keeps track of who has what. But getting these computers to talk to each other is remarkably complex and expensive – the tech is getting a little old,” he says.

If banks started sharing data using a tailor-made version of blockchain it could remove the need for middlemen, a lot of manual processing, and speed up transactions, says Mr Taylor, thereby reducing costs.