Financial institutions have financed the disruption of countless industries over the last 30 years; they have an idea of what a revolutionary technology can do to static incumbents.

So, to stay ahead of change, banks have been proactive in setting up R&D labs, building test centers and establishing partnerships with blockchain developers to fully understand the revolutionary potential of the technology.

Financial institutions were the first to dip their feet in, but academia, governments and consulting firms have also studied the technology.

All of this work is, of course, in addition to what the entrepreneurs and developers are doing, either by finding new ways to use the bitcoin or ethereum blockchains, or else creating entirely new blockchains.

This has been going on for over three years now, and the results are starting to come in.

While some of the waters are still murky, this is what we know a blockchain can do:

Establish digital identity

As discussed in our guide “How Does Blockchain Technology Work?”, the identity component of blockchain technology is fulfilled through the use of cryptographic keys. Combining a public and private key creates a strong digital identity reference based on possession.

A public key is how you are identified in the crowd (like an email address), a private key is how you express consent to digital interactions. Cryptography is an important force behind the blockchain revolution.

Serve as a system of record

As stated in our guide “What is a Distributed Ledger?”, blockchains are an innovation in information registration and distribution. They are good for recording both static data (a registry) or dynamic data (transactions), making it an evolution in systems of record.

In the case of a registry, data can be stored on blockchains in any combination of three ways:

  • Unencrypted data – can be read by every blockchain participant in the blockchain and is fully transparent.
  • Encrypted data  can be read by participants with a decryption key. The key provides access to the data on the blockchain and can prove who added the data and when it was added.
  • Hashed data – can be presented alongside the function that created it to show the data wasn’t tampered with.

Blockchain hashes are generally done in combination with the original data stored off-chain. Digital ‘fingerprints’, for example, are often hashed into the blockchain, while the main body of information can be stored offline.

Such a shared system of record can change the way disparate organizations work together.

Currently, with data siloed in private servers, there is an enormous cost for inter-company transactions involving processes, procedures and cross-checking of records.

Read more on this in our guide “What are the Applications and Use Cases of Blockchains?”.

Prove immutability

A feature of a blockchain database is that is has a history of itself. Because of this, they are often called immutable. In other words, it would be a huge effort to change an entry in the database, because it would require changing all of the data that comes afterwards, on every single node. In this way, it is more a system of record than a database.

Read more on this in our guide “What is the Difference Between a Blockchain and a Database?”.

Serve as a platform

Cryptocurrencies were the first platform developed using blockchain technology. Now, people have moved from the idea of a platform to exchange cryptocurrencies to a platform for smart contracts.

The term ‘smart contracts’ has become somewhat of a catch-all phrase, but the idea can actually be divided into several categories:

There are the ‘vending machine’ smart contracts coined in the 1990s by Nick Szabo. This is where machines engage after receiving an external input (a cryptocurrency), or else send a signal that triggers a blockchain activity.

There are also smart legal contracts, or Ricardian contracts. Much of this application is based on the idea that a contract is a meeting of the minds, and that it is the result of whatever the consenting parties to the contract agree to. So, a contract can be a mix of a verbal agreement, a written agreement, and now also some of the useful aspects of blockchains like timestamps, tokens, auditing, document coordination or business logic.

Finally, there are the ethereum smart contracts. These are programs which control blockchain assets, executed over interactions on the ethereum blockchain. Ethereum itself is a platform for smart contract code.

Blockchains are not built from a new technology. They are built from a unique orchestration of three existing technologies.

Read more on this in our guide “What are the Applications and Use Cases of Blockchain Technology?”.

As the implications of the invention of have become understood, a certain hype has sprung up around blockchain technology.

This is, perhaps, because it is so easy to imagine high-level use cases. But, the technology has also been closely examined: millions of dollars have been spent researching blockchain technology over the past few years, and numerous tests for whether or not blockchain technology is appropriate in various scenarios have been conducted.

Blockchain technology offers new tools for authentication and authorization in the digital world that preclude the need for many centralized administrators. As a result, it enables the creation of new digital relationships.

By formalizing and securing new digital relationships, the blockchain revolution is posed to create the backbone of a layer of the internet for transactions and interactions of value (often called the ‘Internet of Value’, as opposed to the ‘Internet of Information’ which uses the client-server, accounts and master copy databases we’ve been using for over the past 20 years.)

But, with all the talk of building the digital backbone of a new transactional layer to the internet, sometimes blockchains, private cryptographic keys and cryptocurrencies are simply not the right way to go.

Many groups have created flowcharts to help a person or entity decide between a blockchain or master copy, client-server database. The following factors are a distillation of much of what has been previously done:

Is the data dynamic with an auditable history?

Paper can be hard to counterfeit because of the complexity of physical seals or appearances. Like etching something in stone, paper documents have certain permanence.

But, if the data is in constant flux, if it is transactions occurring regularly and frequently, then paper as a medium may not be able to keep up the system of record. Manual data entry also has human limitations.

So, if the data and its history are important to the digital relationships they are helping to establish, then blockchains offer a flexible capacity by enabling many parties to write new entries into a system of record that is also held by many custodians.

Should or can the data be controlled by a central authority?

There remain many reasons why a third party should be in charge of some authentications and authorizations. There are times when third-party control is totally appropriate and desirable. If privacy of the data is the most important consideration, there are ways to secure data by not even connecting it to a network.

But if existing IT infrastructure featuring accounts and log-ins is not sufficient for the security of digital identity, then the problem might be solved by blockchain technology.

As Satoshi Nakamoto wrote in his (or her) seminal work, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”: “Merchants must be wary of their customers, hassling them for more information than they would otherwise need. A certain percentage of fraud is accepted as unavoidable.”

Private key cryptography enables push transactions, which don’t require centralized systems and the elaborate accounts used to establish digital relationships. If this database requires millions of dollars to secure lightweight financial transactions, then there’s a chance blockchains are the solution.

Is the speed of the transaction the most important consideration?

Does this database require high-performance millisecond transactions? (There is more on this point in our guide: “What is the Difference Between a Blockchain and a Database?”).

If high performance, millisecond transactions are what is required, then it’s best to stick with a traditional-model centralized system. Blockchains as databases are slow and there is a cost to storing the data – the processing (or ‘mining’) of every block in a chain. Centralized data systems based on the client-server model are faster and less expensive… for now.

In short, while we still don’t know the full limits and possibilities of blockchains, we can at least say the use cases which have passed inspection have all been about managing and securing digital relationships as part of a system of record.

Authored by Nolan Bauerle; images by Maria Kuznetsov