24 May, 2019
High Time for Blockchain Standards
As technology advances from the ground breaking to the almost innocuous, every-day and even primitive, its multiple variations settle to a standard whether organically or through formal discussion. Standardisation forms an essential part in a technology’s adoption curve and Blockchain/Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) are no exceptions. One of the key people sounding the klaxon for blockchain standardisation sat down with the team to explain why we should be thinking standards.
With a 20 year history in Cyber Security, Gilbert Verdian has held several C-level roles across many respected organisations and public institutions such as Vocalink, NSW Health, HM Treasury and the Federal Reserve. Gilbert was also recently awarded the much sought after title of CISO of the Year in June. We asked Gilbert how it was that he first came across blockchain and why he thought it was the right time to talk standards. Gilbert told us of how he had provided the first spark of conversation within the corridors of Westminster while at HM Treasury, when he spurred senior officials to assess and consider bitcoin, and its impact to the UK, back in 2008. It wasn’t until 2014, during his work at the Australian Government’s Department of Health, that he was able to work on building blockchain solutions. In this instance it was a solution to solve longstanding issues with health record interoperability and security. This activity ultimately resulted in a wider discussion about compliance and standards. Campaigning initially for better understanding from government and regulators, Gilbert could see beyond the initial use case of secure data sharing in health IT to a cross-industry, multi-functional application of blockchain.
Despite initial resistance, Gilbert envisioned the scope of change blockchain was to bring, stating ‘I see a potential similar to that of the internet in the early 90s. We’re at the cusp of something big, blockchain can change a lot of how the internet operates and a lot of how processes operate, we just don’t know what we can do yet’. The most valuable step was then standardising a vision of blockchain and ensuring that everyone was on the same page so that the latent benefits can be brought to the forefront. This was done by authoring the ISO proposal to Standardise Blockchain and then establish a technical committee. The proposal was approved in October 2016 and the ISO/TC307 committee quickly grew from five to eight to now over thirty-five countries and bodies such as the European Commission. From Gilbert’s perspective, there was a clear and immediate sense of momentum and enthusiasm, the likes of which was unknown to the standards community.
We were interested in understanding a bit more about how the ISO committee was broaching such a nascent and fast evolving subject as blockchain. Gilbert explained that the first and current step was to divide the work. Initially splitting off into several working groups covering the following themes: reference architecture; taxonomy and ontology; use cases; security and privacy; identity; and smart contracts, we understood that two more working groups would soon be established including governance and interoperability. It is from the amalgamated work of these groups that we can expect initial guidance for a blockchain standard.
With a better understanding of how blockchain standards are being developed, we wanted to learn a bit more about the motivations directing this movement. 20 years of experience in cyber security had taught Gilbert a lot about the dangers of technology lock-in and he could already see tell-tale signs of this developing in blockchain. Gilbert added that ’by having standards it gives us that option to move between technologies and during implementation, clients can align to standards which makes it easier to implement with confidence in continued compliance.’
Returning to his experience in the public sector, we discussed the various regulatory responses to blockchain. In the UK, the FCA and the Bank of England appear to have really engaged with the subject of blockchain. Gilbert informed us the Bank of England has included the capability to interface to blockchain elements into the Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) Blueprint. Importantly, these blockchain elements would eventually be based on ISO standards when the Standard is complete. Though the UK, and certainly Australia have, in their own way, been pioneering in their engagement with DLT, Gilbert believed that the EU Commission and European Central Bank, who have a reputation for being early movers on issues of technology, were quite far ahead in their engagement. Discussing our thoughts for the future of blockchain, it became clear that welcomed experimentation must be followed by a settlement of standards before we could possibly expect wider adoption of blockchain. This being said, it would not be long until industry could expect these standards to develop, with much progress already having been made.