Cryptocurrency is at the precipice of ushering in the next era of finance. However, in order to be regarded as a commodity, traded and managed in the same way we now do with precious metals, equities, and derivatives, cryptocurrencies must become subject to similar rules, regulations, and trust mechanisms that apply to traditional assets. Such assurances are necessary for cryptocurrencies to achieve their full potential. Banks and financial institutions, as well as other industries, require security at scale and other layers of assurance, like insurance and chain of custody tracking. Adopting the means to develop a high level of trust is an absolute necessity for implementing cryptocurrency in a meaningful way. The question is, how do we get there?
Traditional asset management firms act as fiduciaries on behalf of their partners, subject to rules that ensure the safekeeping and custody of the assets they hold on behalf of their clients. Becoming a fiduciary in the world of cryptocurrency is a complex process, requiring a combination of specialized software and hardware, physical security, as well as clear policies and processes that ensure safe custody of assets. It also requires establishing the means to adopt the regulatory underpinnings for strictly digital assets, and that affords customers the kind of transparency and assurances—track record, management team, balance sheet—that ensure custodial trust is essential.
However, that does not exist in traditional cryptocurrency exchanges where the roles of broker-dealer, clearinghouse, bank and custodian are all handled by a single organization, usually an exchange. That’s too risky for large scale financial operations.
Here are a few elements that should be adopted to mitigate that level of risk and provide acceptable assurances for institutional and large-scale industrial adoption:
Adopt the SOC 2 digital security framework. SOC 2 is a set of rules developed by the American Institute of CPAs to establish a certifiable process of strict, auditable controls for building confidence, and ensuring trust and integrity, in service organizations dealing with digital assets.
Require that institutions act as fiduciaries. Fiduciaries are required to act in the best interests of their clients and must abide by a number of rules and adopt safeguards meant to establish and ensure trust. Fiduciary rules protect the client in the event of wrongdoing, error, or as a backstop to a catastrophic event such as being hacked. Safeguards associated with fiduciaries include insurance, funds in escrow, capital in reserve, security and other procedural checks, and no commingling of client coins.
State-of-the-art security. Digital assets have proven difficult to secure. Trust and security for institutional management of cryptocurrencies require the strictest, strongest technology and processes available, including multi-signature access using private keys, as well as a combination of both online (“hot”) and offline (“cold”) storage of assets to minimize risk.
If we start with these three things, we can accelerate the process of establishing necessary trust in cryptocurrencies. Even though it is counter-intuitive to the prevailing ethic, the benefits of using cryptocurrency in today’s global marketplace demand that at least the leading forms of cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin and Ethereum, adopt rules and even submit to regulations on par with those dictating the operation of traditional financial exchanges. This high level of trust would allow organizations to take advantage of the cryptocurrency’s “frictionless” ease of use and access while providing assurance of the asset’s security.
This type of evolution has happened again and again in financial services. Over the last half-century, security in financial services has evolved from an approach focused on building imposing physical controls, to one emphasizing digital trust. Over that time, we’ve observed those changes in the construction of financial institutions. At one time banks were imposing fortresses built of granite blocks and steel bars, outfitted with armed guards, and intended to send the clear message that your wealth was safe inside. Then, after currency was taken off the gold standard and protected with insurance policies, banks became open, airy, and inviting facilities that emphasized convenience.
Today, a bank may be nothing more than an intermediary operating from a web site or smartphone application. As long as the client is content that their money is secure, there is little concern for the format. That is because security has fully transitioned from the physical to the digital and, while there remains something of the past in our concept of cash and currency, the shift is complete. Cryptocurrency is the natural, next-step in the industry’s evolution.
People have become used to the idea that money doesn’t have to be a tangible representation of wealth, and that the ease of access that comes when wealth is digitized is a part of the value of an individual’s or organization’s finances. Today, more than a decade after Bitcoin’s advent, cryptocurrency represents the next phase of finance, but to get there means taking these important steps and adopting meaningful controls in order to satisfy the demands of traditionally staid industries like financial services. The good news is that, while the market recognizes that the mainstreaming of cryptocurrency is an inevitability, we have the model for making it work. We can—and must—do so for the benefit of the global economy.
Nick Carmi is the Head of Financial Services at BitGo