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Why Blockchain Asset Tracking Is Not Just for the Super-Rich

this article was originally published on coincentral.com the 24th of June 2018.

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An Aboriginal community in rural Australia.

A diamond dealer in Antwerp, Belgium.

A used car salesman in the UK.

A pharmaceutical company headquartered in Switzerland.

What could they possibly all have in common?

The answer is the far-reaching benefits of blockchain asset tracking.

One of the most fundamental features of blockchain is its ability to store value – essentially, to create a digital asset. What started off with Bitcoin has now grown into an ever-expanding list of use cases. Some are more tenuous than others.

Those blockchain use cases likely to weather the test of time are the ones that best exploit the most basic functions of the blockchain. Asset tracking, using the ability of blockchain to create stored value and create an immutable record of ownership for that value, is one of those use cases. This article will look more closely at the application of blockchain asset tracking in some different scenarios.

Cases for Blockchain Asset Tracking

Land Registries

There are plenty of opportunities for blockchain within real estate management, mostly based around reducing or eliminating the role of the numerous middlemen. Reduced friction and quicker sales of real estate are clear benefits for day-to-day property trading. Additionally, blockchain-based land registries can create efficiencies within local governments, reducing the spend of tax dollars.

However, the benefits of tracking real estate assets on the blockchain could also have significant benefits for indigenous groups. It would create a legal means by which anyone can prove their land ownership. Land rights are an ongoing struggle for aboriginal people across the world, including developed countries such as Canada.

Indigen is a blockchain platform aimed at protecting rights and property of indigenous groups around the world. The platform token will serve as a donation currency. The company will direct a portion of mined coins to help poor indigenous populations across the globe. Blockchain asset tracking of land occupied by indigenous people is one of the aims of the project.

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Supply Chains

Walmart is one example of a big company which has already recognized the potential for blockchain in its supply chain. Supply chains are traditionally highly fragmented. Many companies cannot identify precisely how much product they have in any given place at any one moment in time. This results in inefficiencies, and wasted product due to spoilage or theft.

Some industries have worse problems than losing product. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, is one that suffers from counterfeit products entering the supply chain, usually between manufacturer and consumer.

Governments across the developing world are now clamping down on this. However, it is the developing world that bears the brunt. In Africa, some reports say that up to 70% of drugs sold are counterfeit.

Blockchain asset tracking can combat counterfeits entering the market. Digital tags can track and trace products throughout the entire supply chain until they reach the consumer’s hands. The tag can contain all necessary attributes. In the case of drugs, it could include the ingredients, date /place of manufacturer and quality control checks. It can update in real time with the route the product has taken through the supply chain.

Vehicle Trading

Car crime has been around as long as the car. From stolen vehicles and parts to getaway cars used in heists to “cut-and-shuts” where two halves of different vehicles (that have usually been written off due to accidents) are dangerously welded together and passed off as one car.

This goes alongside some of the unethical or illegal practices adopted by used car dealerships like “bait-and-switch” and manipulation of the odometer to reduce the mileage shown on the clock. Buying a car, particularly a used one can be fraught with issues. The buyer has no choice but to trust that the papers presented with the vehicle are genuine.

However, blockchain asset tracking could make the process of buying a used car far more secure. With a blockchain-based record of each vehicle including its parts, maintenance, accident and ownership history, buyers could place far greater trust in the process. They would know that their new car is a genuine model with a clean maintenance history.

Further, AI technology could determine a fair and consistent value for each vehicle, reducing the incidence of used car traders overpricing vehicles.

Gemstone Tracking

The gemstone industry is worth $23bn annually, with diamonds responsible for the most significant proportion of that. However, conflict or “blood” diamonds are a problem that continues to plague gemstone traders. Rough diamonds are sold in conflict zones such as Angola or the Central African Republic. They are smuggled out of the country, cut and polished up and passed off as legitimate.

Many governments in the developing world have passed legislation to prevent the sale of conflict diamonds within their jurisdictions. Therefore, jewelers and traders have an interest in making sure that they are not purchasing blood diamonds.

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De Beers, is the worlds biggest producer of diamonds, is now looking to blockchain asset tracking to stop blood diamonds from entering the market. The company reported in May that they had successfully trialed blockchain to track ten gems from the mine to cutter and polisher, and then to the jeweler for sale. De Beers plans to make the system available across the entire diamond industry, to eliminate the illegal trade of blood diamonds.

Further Considerations

Two other common elements feature across all of this. They are instant transfers and tokenization of assets.

Instant Transfers

Assets registers on the blockchain will be transferable between parties at the push of a button – and without the need for intermediaries. Smart contracts could also feature – holding funds in escrow until full payment is made. On receipt of payment, the new ownership would be effected immediately. This could cover ownership rights of a car, a piece of real estate, a gemstone, or a consignment of pharmaceuticals between the parties to the smart contract.

Tokenization of Assets

The creation of security tokens representing fractional ownership of physical assets offers exciting possibilities. Some tangible assets that could appreciate over time, such as real estate, are too costly for one individual or even family to afford to invest in an entire unit.

For example, someone wanting to invest in a gemstone has to choose a stone of a size that is within their budget. But the bigger the jewel, the higher the value per carat. What if you could invest in a fraction of a large, highly valuable gemstone? Tokenization makes that possible.

The world is only just starting to explore the art of the possible for blockchain asset tracking. This article has outlined just a few of the opportunities that are opening up. It is beginning to become believable that within the next ten or twenty years, blockchain will be the only foolproof means of proving ownership and recording value.

Blockchain Affiliate Marketing: Boosting Profits for Publishers

This article was originally published the 13-6-2018. on coincentral.com

Blockchain affiliate marketing platforms are some of the latest to exploit new technology to solve old problems. More than 80% of online brands and publishers now use affiliate marketing, and yet it accounts for only 5% of the spend on digital marketing globally. Why would this be the case?

Well, like so many other industries, affiliate marketing is dependent on intermediaries. In this case, the middlemen are the affiliate networks. However, there are now several companies releasing blockchain affiliate marketing platforms that do what blockchain does so well. It will eliminate the middleman – and the fees that they take for their service.

What Is Affiliate Marketing?

For the uninitiated, affiliate marketing is a way for brands to promote their products online. How it works is that a website (the publisher) will put a link on their site promoting a particular product or service from a brand (the merchant). When a customer clicks on that link and makes a purchase, the publisher gets a commission from the sale.

It’s popular because it creates a win-win scenario for merchants and publishers alike. The merchant is paying out commission only based on sales performance, unlike many other kinds of advertising. Once the links are set up, the publisher can earn passive income from their website.

Some very well-known sites started off life in this way – take Skyscanner for example. The high-profile success of many affiliate marketers is another way that gig-economy millennials can try to generate some side income.

What Is an Affiliate Network?

For a brand to launch an affiliate program at any scale, it must create a means for publishers to install tracking cookies and have a secure login area independently of the online shop for publishers to track sales. All of this creates barriers to entry for merchants. Enter the middleman – the affiliate network. CJ Affiliate and Clickbank are two of the biggest.

These big players aggregate both publishers and merchants to connect them to one another, in the same way, that Uber connects a rider with a driver. For the provision of this service, the affiliate networks generally charge between 10% and 25% of the commission paid. It’s a pretty payment for what is a mostly passive service. Given that affiliate publishers are also dependent on services such as PayPal to receive their earnings, what they earn at the end can be subject to even costlier deductions.

One of the best-known use cases for blockchain is to eliminate the need for a middleman – in the case of Bitcoin, it removes the need for a bank or clearing house. In the case of affiliate marketing, some savvy startups are now seeing that it can eliminate the need for the affiliate network.

How Do Blockchain Affiliate Marketing Networks Operate?

There are several new players in the market, and each of them has a slightly different model in place. However, smart contracts are the standard feature. In the case of Ethereum-based platforms Hoquand RefToken, blockchain creates smart contracts automatically upon the generation of a lead or sale. One new player, Attrace, is developing a custom blockchain that will generate a smart contract each time a user clicks an affiliate link.

Smart contracts will also be able to govern the terms of the affiliate sales agreement between publisher and merchant. So, for example, the percentage or amount of affiliate commission to be paid, and perhaps the timing of the payment, are controlled by the smart contract.

The smart contract will be able to automatically attribute the sale, and execute the payment of the affiliate earnings by deducting digital funds from the merchant and paying over to the publisher. The commission can be paid in cryptocurrency. Or in the case of Attrace; it plans to offer an option for receiving earnings in fiat currency. Payouts in fiat would potentially lower the barriers to using such a blockchain affiliate marketing network for publishers who have not yet adopted cryptocurrencies.

Why Make the Switch to Blockchain Affiliate Marketing Solutions?

All of the blockchain affiliate marketing networks can promote themselves on a substantial reduction in fees over the traditional affiliate networks – in some cases as much as 95%.

However, there are other issues that blockchain-based solutions can solve in addition to saving fees.

Reduce Fraud and Disputes: One of the most reported issues from both merchants and publishers. Publishers complain that their sales may be under-reported, and their earnings withheld. Blockchain provides a permanent record of transactions. A record like this means less likelihood of disputes over whether a sale was successful. Particularly if click-tracking becomes the norm, this will significantly increase transparency.  Merchants and publishers can see which clicks resulted in both sales and non-sales.

Speed: Currently, it can take weeks or sometimes even months for publishers to receive their payments. In some cases, it takes as long for sales to even register on the affiliate network platform. It is also common for affiliate networks to impose minimum payment thresholds. Therefore, publishers can wait a long time to get paid. Blockchain allows payment to be made in real time, or the payment schedule can be automated with smart contracts.

Increased Value Creation Between Merchant and Publisher: The traditional affiliate networks stand between publisher and merchant. This means that the two parties never have the opportunity for a direct discussion about creating more value in the relationship. For example, transparency of which kind of links or ads perform best, or how best to market new products.

Even if a publisher is the number one best source of sales for a particular merchant, they have no opportunity to differentiate as the affiliate network sits between and can mask the value offered by different publishers. For example, one publisher may generate a small number of lifetime customers that may be worth more for the client than a more substantial volume of one-time clients.

Decrease Barriers to Entry for Smaller Merchants: The traditional affiliate networks care about generating commission. So they usually demand that merchants pay a minimum threshold to qualify for their platforms. Blockchain-based services can afford to operate without imposing such limits.

These new players entering the blockchain affiliate network game clearly believe that this is an industry with much potential. In addition to innovative content marketing solutions like Steem, there are still new ways that blockchain can enhance existing content marketplaces.

 

The Past and Present of Bitcoin Mining Fraud

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This article was original published on coincentral.com the 11-06-2018.

Bitcoin mining and fraud are an unfortunate reality we must face as an industry. From things like Bitconnect to Butterfly labs to even Onecoin, there are a lot of scams and fraud floating around.

These schemes leave people high and dry with lost money and no product or service rendered. They play off of people’s greed and irrational expectations of gains, despite exaggerated promises of gains. 

Ultimately, these schemes, sow seeds of distrust amongst users and attract ire from regulators in a fledgling industry where everyone is already walking on eggshells.

Before we delve in let’s break the categories down that these Bitcoin mining frauds fall into:

  • Vaporware – Hardware that is being “sold” but is actually just an idea and not an actual creation being made or if it is made there is little to no value left in the hardware (e.g. Butterfly Labs) 
  • Cloud Mining – With the offering of shares and other constructs, it is easy to sell people digital units of basically nothing. By offering consistent returns this creates a false sense of security which typically end with exit scams (e.g. BitClub)
  • Robo Trading, Tumblers and HYIPs – This model is usually a farce, claiming that there is a team or algorithm behind the scenes “trading”. From this activity, they give you a specific % daily gain (e.g. Bitconnect)

Vaporware

Although many consider companies like Bitmain to be evil corporations, a lot of people don’t realize how sketchy the mining scene was in the early days, 2010-2014 especially.

It was quieter times with less (almost no) mania like today with ICOs. The media was clueless and instead, you had probably what was similar to the early days of the web. This means mostly hardcore techies and enthusiasts but there were also cunning con artists and roving Crypto-hacker bandits trying to steal people’s coin.

Since many safeguards were not available it had a “darknet” like vibe where you weren’t really sure who or what was safe. For example, many altcoins were mostly scams in 2014, especially the anonymous cryptocurrencies.

The BTC mining and “investing” scene has had a subtle yet constant threat of scamming since the early days. Sadly, the masterminds behind such initiatives have only gotten more intelligent and crafty in their methods.

Hardware that doesn’t exist aka vaporware has been less common recently as there are now many more legitimate options for sourcing mining hardware like Bitmain or Halong Mining.  

One of the first and most blatant vaporware scams was with Butterfly Labs. Butterfly Labs took customer funds, built machines, mined on them and provided them to customers when the mining profitability was basically worthless.

In 2016, this caused the regulatory hammer to come down in the form of a lawsuit:

 

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“Butterfly Labs and two of its operators have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they deceived thousands of consumers about the availability, profitability, and newness of machines designed to mine the virtual currency known as Bitcoin, and that they unfairly kept consumers’ up-front payments despite failing to deliver the machines as promised.

Under the terms of the settlements, Butterfly Labs and its part-owner and vice president of product development, Sonny Vleisides, and its general manager, Darla Drake, will be prohibited from misrepresenting to consumers whether a product or service can be used to generate Bitcoins or any other virtual currency, on what date a consumer will receive the product or service, and whether the product is new or used. The settlements also include monetary judgments that are partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.

“Even in the fast-moving world of virtual currencies like Bitcoin, companies can’t deceive people about their products,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “These settlements will prevent the defendants from misleading consumers.”

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After receiving a fine and having to shut down the company, Butterfly Labs was over. But what recourse for the customers? Unfortunately, not a whole lot. 

Since then, the market has higher intelligence and awareness of fair offerings, especially with the advent of legitimate ASIC suppliers.

Cloud Mining

While mining Cryptocurrency itself is absolutely not a scam, some constructs and services rendered by middlemen absolutely are. Cloud mining is where you are promised digital shares in a mining operation and provided “returns” for your investment. Although there are legitimate players in this space, there are also the tricksters.

Because there’s almost no way to prove that you are getting an actual spot in a data center, Cloud mining is a serious conundrum. Sure, you could verify that you are getting payouts in your wallet but in terms of the actual mining backend, the proof is dubious at best.

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How Cloud Mining Works

The premise of Cloud mining is simple, you purchase a given amount of hash power, often called “shares” which gives you access to part of the mining data center (similar to renting a room). 

Typically, you are given a menu of a few cryptocurrency and algorithms options associated with mining.  For example, Bitcoin (SHA-256), Monero (CryptoNight) or Zcash (Equihash). 

In return for your purchased hash of the specific Cryptocurrency, you are then provided X amount of Cryptocurrency, sent to your wallet directly. You can use a profitability calculator based on current market price, difficulty and network hash rate, to determine what a payout would be.

Payouts can range in frequency depending on your customizations and can be hourly (if a high enough threshold is reached), daily or weekly.

This is one of the easiest scams to concoct as the entire construct of you buying digital shares from a company “somewhere over there” is a pretty dubious foundation for an investment.

Nonetheless, we have definitely seen some blatant scams intermingled with seemingly legitimate operations who provide a fair market value of products and services. This can make Bitcoin cloud mining frauds hard to detect for some investors struggling to filter through the noise.

Robo trading and HYIP schemes

These are one of, if not the most crafty Bitcoin scams of all. The reason for this is that these operations leverage fake yet well-working websites to woo users with good looking UI, rapid daily payouts, and withdrawals.

2017 seemed to have a large surge in High-yield Investment Programs (HYIPs) like Bitpetite, Davor, and the infamous Bitconnect.

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Bitpetite, claimed to be a tumbler that would give you returns on your loaned crypto

The way they worked is you would set up an account which would have a wallet address (similar to exchanges) where you would send your coin to. Cryptocurrencies like BTC, LTC, ETH and even XMR were commonly accepted and denoted this balance once it was sent. 

The platform through a dashboard would then show your investment as well as how much you earned from your investment. So if the platform promised 5% returns a day, your $100 investment would show a $5 worth of earnings in your account.

The premise of how these returns were earned include a variety of narratives such as Bitcoin mining and trading algorithms in place to even tumbling services. But most of the time that is all they are, stories to keep unknowing users happily running this con-machine.

The thing about these setups is the good ones run extremely smoothly and seamlessly which builds a false sense of trust among users who assume “well because it’s paying out, it must be legit”. The longer this charade goes on, the longer users feel more confident in this shaky investment.

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Bitconnect operated by allowing you to deposit in BTC which would then be exchanged for BCC (Bitconnect coin) which would then be used to invest in a robotic trading bot and algorithm. This “algorithm” would allegedly trade for you and earn approximately 1% a day on your investment.

There was a function where you could reinvest your profits which would increase the principal investment at work and would increase your payouts based on your increased amount invested.

This led to a whole boom in Youtube “millionaires” like Trevon James, one of the most well known Bitconnect shills. Eventually, Trevon James and a variety of other promoters of Bitconnect have been contacted by the FBI and SEC for a hearing. 

This could be for potentially promoting what has come out to be a ponzi scam and appears to be a part of a larger investigation. 

What’s really sad about Bitconnect, is the false sense of trust it created which caused people to do truly crazy things such as losing their life savings.

Final Thoughts

Although physical Bitcoin mining scams have been mostly eliminated, there are new more intelligent scams that have taken their place. 

Vaporware dupes users with non-existent or worthless hardware (e.g. Butterfly Labs)

Cloud-based Bitcoin Mining offers digital mining data center shares and contracts promising consistent returns. 

Robo Trading and HYIPs claim to use algorithms behind the scenes “trading”. From this activity, they give you a specific % daily gain (e.g. Bitconnect)

The good news is that many of these schemes are easy to identify. 

Red flags include: guaranteed promises of gains and returns, specific %, referral or MLM style incentives behind the model and a website that mimics the look, feel and functionality of other proven scams offering similar gains.

It’s still a wild, wild crypto West so, be careful out there.

Image via: A detail of the Charles M. Russell painting “Big Nose George and the Road Agents.” JONATHAN BLAIR/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES

American Express to Add Blockchain to Membership Rewards Program

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This article was originally published on coincentral.com the 23-05-2018.

On Wednesday, American Express announced a blockchain application to its Membership Rewards program.

Using Hyperledger’s blockchain technology, merchants will be tailor customized offers using Membership Rewards points on their own platform with the goal of increasing engagement and usage rates with their customers. The pilot trial with Boxed will let members earn up to 5x the normal number of points on certain products, according to the press release. 

This is a notable application of blockchain, as American Express’ Membership Rewards is one of the company’s most notable and strongest assets and exists in 21 countries.

The blockchain implementation is designed to keep all merchant and user data private, anonymized, and secure. It will also help increase transparency of what merchants are offering for American Express, as well as decreasing the onboarding time for new partners down from the months to “a matter of weeks”. 

While many don’t immediately think of American Express as exploring and innovating within the blockchain realm, it’s worth noting that the company joined the Linex Foundation-led Hyperledger in January 2017. Additionally, American Express invested in Abra’s $12m Series A round in September 2015.

Christina Comben: How is Blockchain Being Applied to Cybersecurity Right Now?

This article was originally published on  coincentral.com  the 30-April-2018.  We’re getting pretty used to hearing about cool new projects using blockchain. From online marketplaces to green energy; every man, woman, and their respective dogs are busy leaping on the bandwagon. Future promises, flashy launches, impressive white papers… These things are all well and good. But what about practical use cases happening now, starting with cybersecurity?

This article was originally published on coincentral.com the 30-April-2018.

We’re getting pretty used to hearing about cool new projects using blockchain. From online marketplaces to green energy; every man, woman, and their respective dogs are busy leaping on the bandwagon. Future promises, flashy launches, impressive white papers… These things are all well and good. But what about practical use cases happening now, starting with cybersecurity?

Blockchain and Cybersecurity

Whenever you talk about the blockchain, you almost always enter a discourse of hypotheticals. This is true in relation to government and commerce, and it’s true of cybersecurity as well. But cybersecurity is a pressing problem, costing the global economy an estimated $450 billion a year. 

So, rather than speculate over how blockchain may eventually resolve the woes of this problematic industry, what problems is it tackling now? And which companies are getting their hands dirty (so to speak)?

“Blockchain has plenty of genuine use cases,” says Nick Bilogorskiy, Cybersecurity Strategist at Juniper Networks, “for example decentralized storage, preventing fraud and data theft, and distributed public key infrastructure for user or device authentication.” 

Multi-Factor Authentication

DDoS (Deliberate Denial of Service) attacks are one of the most common cybersecurity threats in the industry today. And they are rampant and widespread mainly due to our existing Domain Name System. When we hold data in one centralized location, it’s infinitely easier to break into. With blockchain’s decentralized structure, distributing information over nodes, systems will become virtually impossible to hack.

“Instead of all passwords of users being held in one database in the network operations center of one company, each individual holds their private key,” says Nick Spanos, founder of the Bitcoin Center NYC. “Companies like Equifax and Wells Fargo would never again handle information the way that they did. You would have to hack millions of their users simultaneously–a much more difficult feat.”

Winner of the Microsoft Blockchain Incentive award, blockchain security startup REMME is currently preventing cyber attacks on companies large and small. By eliminating the room for human error, and the simple one-step password system widely used, we close the window for opportunist hackers scouring for easily crackable passwords. 

REMME’s robust solution is built on the decentralized ledger and manages and authenticates users and devices through multi-factor authentication. This eliminates the chances of preying on the easiest target for cyber attackers (weak passwords). 

The company is also working with several Bitcoin exchanges to help prevent phishing attacks like the Bitfinex attack that lost $60 million (120,000 BTC at the time). They provide the security of an authorized platform based on cryptographic principles and a user-friendly, one-click 2FA.

Improving IoT Security

One of the stumbling blocks in the road of IoT’s growth is the constant threat of device security. According to research by Gemalto, 96 percent of companies and 90 percent of consumers believe that their IoT devices aren’t secure–and that there should be government regulation in place. Their main concern, it seems, is that a hacker will take control of their device, or that their personal data will be stolen.

When baby monitors and medical devices are infected with Malware, and major car manufacturers lose control over their vehicles, the public’s concern is understandable. The thought of losing control of your car or respiratory equipment is indeed panic-inducing. But here too, blockchain is starting to show some results.  

IBM has a long history of innovation. So it’s not surprising that they’re leading the charge when it comes to blockchain tech. The IBM Watson IoT Platform is allowing IoT devices to transmit data to blockchain ledgers. This data is then included in shared transactions and records that are tamper-resistant and validated through secure, smart contracts.

Australian telecommunications giant Telstra is also seeing success using blockchain to secure their “smart home” IoT ecosystems, by verifying people’s identity through stored biometric authentication data. And IOTA is also showing promise for the scaling of IoT through its Tangle technology.

Filling the Talent Gap

You may have thought there were more than enough computer engineers to go around. But it turns out that there’s quite a talent shortage when it comes to cybersecurity. 

Unemployment in the industry hovers around zero. This means that when new positions crop up, they are extremely hard to fill. And with the constant challenges of emerging tech (and with them, greater cyber threats) by 2020, Frost & Sullivan predict at least 1.8 million vacant positions in the cybersecurity industry.

Companies like PolySwarm, a decentralized antivirus marketplace, incentivize techies around the world to contribute toward fighting cybercrime. Not only does this give bright talent a chance to shine, regardless of their location, education, or history, but it also helps detect cybercrime faster. 

Dwell times (the amount of time a virus sits dormant inside a system before activating) is one of the most serious threats today, meaning speed is of the essence. With former McAfee Antivirus CIO Mark Tonnesen as an advisor to the PolySwarm team, stopping cybercriminals in their tracks and preventing attacks is becoming a reality.   

Not Everyone’s in Agreement

Of course, the debate about blockchain and its suitability as a technology rages throughout the cybersecurity industry as well. Despite the growing number of use cases and gathering momentum for blockchain, not everyone’s in agreement about its potential. 

CEO of Gunner Technology Cody Swann says, “We’ve been inundated with requests for blockchain apps from entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, none of these products have made it past alpha on the blockchain. Why? Because in the vast majority of the cases, the blockchain is an inferior choice to most technologies.”

Worldpay Vice President and Head of Global Cyber Defense & Security Strategy, Peter Tran, is also less than enthused with blockchain technology so far. He believes that artificial intelligence and machine learning have the upper hand in fighting cybercrime. And also that rehauling existing infrastructures may not be an economic reality.  

The challenge here will be in making blockchain technology easier, more effective, and cheaper to use. But it’s heartening to know that blockchain is already solving many of our problems and can only go up from here.

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