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“No room for mistakes”: IsBit addresses security challenge

The trade-finance fintech must convince B2B customers they are safer using blockchain instead of manual processes.

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IsBit is a Mexican company looking to use Bitcoin and blockchain technology to break into that country’s two-way trade financing, which last year recorded $775 billion in cross-border payments. Although its immediate desire is to raise outside funding, it must also build trust, for itself and for commercial blockchains in general: similar outfits have been hit by fraud.

Co-founder Sebastian Acosta Checa says the startup is on the verge of converting corporate and bank trial users into customers, which would give IsBit a major lift in its ambition to displace Swift and CLS Group, consortia that today dominate international payment communications and currency-exchange settlement.

Citing statistics from Mexico’s central bank, Acosa Checa says cross-border payments between, say, Mexico and China can take a week or longer to process, and the banks can take cuts of 3% to 10%. Such payments (including forex spreads) added up to more than $20 billion last year. He says IsBit’s blockchain application lets companies reduce their cost to below 1% and settle payments in under an hour.

Companies in one country deposit fiat currency in their local bank (locally, IsBit handles withdrawals and deposits in both pesos and dollars). IsBit transfers the money via its blockchain to a bank on the other end, where another company can receive the money in its local paper currency. Users don’t need to hold or trade Bitcoin themselves; it’s just the medium in which IsBit makes the forex trade behind a cross-border payment.

Acosta Checa says IsBit is beginning to work with banks as well as 200 companies trying it out, and hopes to have 5,000 users on the service by the end of the year.

Bad examples
Getting people from testing to users will require trust in the system. A tech company has to bear the same responsibilities as a bank when handling client money. “There’s no room for mistakes,” Acosta Checa said. “One security breach or unsanctioned transaction – it would be a big problem. I don’t operate with a big legal department. So I need execution to be perfect.”

The problem he has is beyond his control: other Bitcoin networks have been undone by fraud. For example, Hong Kong-based Bitcoin exchange network Bitfinex, which caters to retail investors, was robbed of around BTC120,000 in 2016, valued at about $66 million at the time (or $129 million today). The theft occurred on a single day when transactions were made in small amounts to thousands of bitcoin addresses.

Compounding the pain to its users, Bitfinex then levied a 36% loss across all user balances. The network was back in business the next week, but since the heist, Bitfinex’s founder and CEO, Raphael Nicolle, has vanished from the public eye.

The hack took place despite Bitfinex having set up what appeared to be sophisticated, two-step authentication measures – similar, but not exact, to those that IsBit deploys. So could it happen again? Acosta Checa says no – not like that.

Bitfinex operates on a multi-signature model, in which three entities hold keys (strings of passwords related to a unique identity). Any transaction requires validation from two out of the three keys. The customer has one, which he can activate via a mobile device or a desktop computer. Bitfinex (the exchange operator) has another. The third is held by a “hot-wallet”, which in Bitfinex’s case is an entity called BitGo.

Just as banks need to keep some cash on hand to meet daily redemption requests, a digital-currency exchange needs some bitcoins available for liquidity purposes. This is the role of a hot wallet: it’s a store of clients’ bitcoins that is connected to the internet and can be tapped by the exchange. (The bulk of client bitcoins are meant to be stored offline, in “cold storage”.)

The Bitfinex hack involved getting the exchange to instruct BitGo to sign off on illegal trades. BitGo’s systems appear to have functioned properly, which has raised suspicions that the heist may have been an inside job from Bitfinex: access to both the Bitfinex key as well as the means to trick BitGo into validating the deal. (Another bitcoin heist attacking Japan’s Mount Gox in 2015 was an inside job.)

Smarter security
Acosta Checa knows something about cyber security. Trained as an actuary, he also used to work as an in-house hacker for companies, getting paid to probe their digital weaknesses.

He says IsBit also uses “multi-sig” technology to protect a fraction of assets kept in a hot wallet, while most client assets remain offline on recovery servers.

But, Acosta Checa says, BitGo was not configured with the right risk-management rules. It didn’t pay attention to amount limits, nor was there any signal to manually verify large withdrawals. “We have established limit-velocity of withdrawals or a manual approval,” he told DigFin.

Another flaw with BitGo was that passkeys could be drawn out of its server through APIs (connections that allow servers to share software applications). IsBit has instead embedded keys in its server’s memory, so hackers would have to first gain access to the server to steal the passkey, and then erase the server’s memory of the hacker’s visit.

IsBit is also implementing a better way to protect assets by being more exact about how much need to be kept in the hot wallet. Acosta Checa has developed actuarial calculations to weigh deposits (offline, in cold storage) versus liquidity required in a hot wallet to meet withdrawal requests.

“The challenge [to our business] is our relationship with tax authorities; it’s compliance,” he said. “We have a lot of cost because we have to do verification on each new customer, to ensure they are legit. This is a manual process.”

He reckons the cost is worth it: acquisition runs to about $50 to $100 per company. Acosta Checa argues this is nothing compared to the lifetime value of a big importer or exporter using the exchange, which he calculates to be as high as $20,000 over three decades.

That’s a faraway goal for a company that is still onboarding its first clients, but Acosta Checa believes cost of client acquisition will also fall. New technologies will emerge to make KYC and AML cheaper and easier, he says.

Ultimately the play for him is the logic for companies and their banks to use blockchain networks, transferring cross-border payments cheaply and quickly via digital currencies. He is competing with another Mexican fintech company, Bitso, for national dominance. Compliance and defending against fraud are problems, but Acosta Checa notes that his challenges aren’t so unique: fraud has long existed in the paper-based world.

The threat of fraud should not, by itself, inhibit adoption of blockchain networks, but realistically they still have to prove themselves – particularly those such as IsBit taking aim at the B2B world. “We’re going to go and make this mainstream,” Acosta Checa promised.

Banking & Payments

Busting six myths about China’s e-RMB (part 1)

There’s a lot we assume about the PBoC’s digital yuan – and we’re often wrong.

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While politicians and central bankers in the U.S. and Europe wrangle over Facebook’s proposed Libra coin, one government is moving to seize the initiative: China.

The People’s Bank of China has been studying central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) for several years and probably has the greatest technical understanding of any public institution. Introduction of a digital yuan could come any day now.

There are a lot of unknowns and misconceptions about this, however. Here are the first three out of six myths about the digital yuan that tend to crop up in media, conferences (shout out to NexChange), and cocktail conversation (DigFin drinks at nerdy bars).

China will be the first to issue a central bank digital currency.

Nope. The first digital currency has already come and gone: for six months, from November 2017 to April 2018, the Central Bank of Uruguay deployed a live e-Peso, using mobile phones to enable payments and transfers. Hats off to Mario Bergara, the CBU’s governor, for making history.

The pilot program saw the CBU issue 20 million pesos’ worth of digital notes to 10,000 users of local telecoms operator Antel.

The central bank wanted to see whether digital money would be easier to trace for tax purposes, if it would encourage the unbanked to enter the formal financial system, if it would help CBU save money on minting banknotes, and prove safer to use.

The authorities also wanted to see if digital cash might compete against banks’ high-fee credit cards, with a view to nudging those rates down.

CBU also enabled, but didn’t activate, its e-peso to bear interest – something that physical cash can’t do. Enabling currency to charge interest is a way central banks can encourage its adoption; similarly, they could charge users to hold digital cash, if they wanted to take it out of circulation.

The experiment suggested digital cash works well among the already-banked and digitally connected. There was some evidence it began to seep its way into the more remote parts of the country. Uruguyans very quickly found ways to arbitrage transactions across platforms for the best deals.

The short period of circulation meant other questions were not answered, such as its impact on tax evasion or how people would respond to interest-bearing cash.

CBDCs are based on blockchain.

No! Libra is based on blockchain, and of course a central bank could use similar technology. But Uruguay didn’t use blockchain, and China won’t either.

The PBoC will mint these tokens and assign them an identity on its own servers. Conditions such as whether coins bear interest can be baked into the coins themselves, with no need for smart contracts.

It will disseminate these among select wholesale banks, but to the extent that banks pass these on to individuals or businesses, they can do so via banks’ phone apps (Uruguay issued e-pesos directly to Antel).

In fact, banks in China have developed the technology to allow people to exchange digital tokens using near-field communications tech – which is to say, phones in proximity can transfer money without even needing the mobile network to be operating.

There are scenarios, however, in which distributed-ledger technology could come into the picture, but centralized. In particular, the PBoC could opt to issue “synthetic CBDCs”…for that discussion, see Myth 5.

This is some seriously cool stuff that DigFin covered at the beginning of the year, which you can check out here.

China’s capital controls will make a digital yuan a domestic event.

Setting aside the exciting talk about using digital renminbi for payments in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a digital yuan could have a big impact on monetary policy in countries with extensive ties to China.

Central banks the world over enjoy seigniorage when they print money – that’s like the fee they charge users for the privilege of accepting freshly minted cash. And when your citizens go abroad and spend, or foreign banks accumulate your currency, the issuer still keeps the benefits of that seigniorage. The Federal Reserve gets indirectly paid by all the non-Americans holding or spending greenbacks.

The renminbi does not do this today for China, because it’s not used for trade settlement. When Chinese tourists go abroad, they turn their renminbi into local currency, and (essentially) pay the local central bank for the pleasure.

A digital yuan could help internationalize the use of crossborder renminbi for payments, by allowing Chinese citizens to pay for local goods with Chinese money – assuming local merchants accept it (and that the local central bank allows them to).

Today, Chinese tourists may pay for things overseas with WeChat Pay or AliPay, but the final settlement is in the local currency. But the nature of CBDCs is that, if a Chinese tourist uses her Xiaomi phone to pay for dinner in Bangkok using digital RMB, the final settlement takes place in renminbi: the transaction ends up being more like if a Thai restaurant sold a dinner to someone in Shanghai.

For countries like Thailand that receive vast numbers of Chinese tourists, the prospect of tens of millions of people de-facto paying for everything in their own currency is a threat to the Thai monetary base: baht won’t circulate as much.

Moreover, customs will no longer be able to control the amounts of cash that enter the country. It’s risky and difficult for people to smuggle loads of cash through airports, but easy to move digital currency (as Bitcoiners know). Now consider the spending binges that Chinese visitors could go on, using their own cash, in Bangkok or Paris.

The French government might be prepared to ban digital renminbi from circulating in France. But would the Thai government be prepared to make the same call?

Just as Libra has emerging-market central banks running scared (because in a local financial crisis, their people would flee to Libra, potentially bankrupting the domestic monetary system), the idea of big economies – China, the European Union, India – issuing CBDCs and insisting these be allowed to circulate with their citizens and businesses means that smaller countries could see their monetary sovereignty at risk. This isn’t new: in Latin America it’s called dollarization.

We’ll be back later with three more myths!

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Banking & Payments

Three questions for incoming virtual banks

CEOs from three licensed startups in Hong Kong highlight issues they are still working through.

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Frederick Lau, Airstar

Many Hongkongers are eager to sample services from among the eight virtual banks that have been licensed. That’s according to a survey by KPMG of over 2,000 residents, most of whom express readiness to give virtual banks a try, says the consultancy’s head of fintech, Avril Rae.

The promise is new banks that solve real pain points, not just serving up a snazzy mobile app: fast and easy account opening, services to help people organize their finances, and blending banking in with lifestyle activities, among other things. They are doing so by leveraging artificial intelligence, big data analytics, cloud computing, and open APIs, to ensure a widely accessible, 24/7 business.

But there remain plenty of questions as to how to actually implement a virtual bank – which is probably why several V.B.s have been reportedly warning their launches will be delayed well into 2020. The noise around this is acute enough to prompt a statement yesterday from Arthur Yuen, deputy CEO at Hong Kong Monetary Authority. He told the audience of the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers – gathered for HKIB’s annual conference – that there never was a launch period mandated by the regulator.

“Our objective is to ensure that virtual banks are prepared,” he said, adding that he expects a few will soft-launch basic services before the end of 2019.

Question 1: regulation

On paper, there should be no question marks about regulation. The law is clear: virtual banks have the same capital requirements and the same legal obligations as convention ones, with the single exception that they must be branchless.

The HKMA is keen to see these new players provide better tailored services to retail customers and small businesses, to better drive competition and keep Hong Kong’s banking industry relevant. Its supervisory stance is “risk based and technology neutral”, which sounds the same as how it treats conventional banks.

But it’s clear already that regulating V.B.s is not at all like regulating conventional banks. There is a greater focus on technology risk management and data privacy, as well as ensuring anti-money laundering and other compliance checks.

Customer protection is an even greater challenge for virtual banks

Arthur Yuen, HKMA

“Customer protection is an even greater challenge for virtual banks,” Yuen said, “as they use behavior data analytics as they design and market products and services. That raises very different protection challenges,” notably data privacy.

Yuen sited the government’s Privacy Commission as a font of ethics and best practices. Those are indeed fairly well developed. But they are also voluntary, and the Privacy Commission lacks enforcement powers.

Question 2: compliance

The flip side to HKMA’s concerns about supervising virtual banks is how they themselves approach issues around compliance.

Frederick Lau, CEO of Airstar Bank – owned 90% by Xiaomi and 10% by AMTD, where Lau also works – says meeting regulatory standards is not straightforward.

“Doing implementation with our vendors, we encounter a big number of [projects] that are not up to our [banking] standards or up to the regulator’s standards,” he told the HKIB forum. “We have to go back and forth to keep improving the final products.”

He says this is not unique to Airstar. Miscommunication stems from differing expectations. Virtual banks are new, for the industry and for the HKMA, which hasn’t issued a big banking license for decades. These may be “virtual” banks but they still must submit small mountains worth of paper documentation.

Moreover, with eight V.B.s on the drawing board, there is fierce competition for hiring in I.T., risk management, and compliance. Hiring bottlenecks impact the pace of other aspects of building the bank.

Running a technology company is different from running a bank

Frederick Lau, Airstar Bank

But the biggest challenge, at least internally, is that most of the leading shareholders of V.B.s are not banks. Of the eight, only two have major bank owners (Bank of China and Standard Chartered), while local fintech WeLab has been operating electronic marketplaces for several years.

“Running a technology company is different from running a bank,” Lau said. “When Apple launches a new version of the iPhone, it’s not perfect. There may be bugs. But they want to launch their product fast and grab market-share. In banking we cannot do that. We have to do everything 100 percent perfectly, to reach our standard and the HKMA’s standard.”

Which is a way of saying the tech shareholders in V.B.s still need time to better understand what is expected of a bank in Hong Kong – in a way that doesn’t compromise the innovation that’s at the heart of these new businesses.

Question 3: metrics

Tat Lee, alternate CEO at WeLab, says the newness of virtual banks means equipping the bank’s teams, including its bankers, with a tech mindset.

“When we build a virtual bank, we want to change the traditional way to build a bank,” he said. “It’s not a business-driven bank. Business is important, but technology is a key success factor. Everyone needs that mindset.”

Internally that means moving away from traditional decision-making processes (such as waterfalls, that is, sequential and hierarchical decisions) and more inclusive formats that encourage innovation.

“Compliance and risk-management people need to be trained, to combine their traditional wisdom with the technology,” he said.

We want to change the traditional way to build a bank

Tat Lee, WeLab

But where does the business side – revenues – come in? And if it’s not the main driver (at least not for the next few years), how do banks intend to benchmark their progress?

Deniz Güven, CEO of Standard Chartered’s virtual bank, says traditional metrics won’t work. Everyone gives lip service to the “customer-first” proposition but he doubts that’s how banks actually operate. But customers will really be the first priority among virtual banks (aside from necessities such as security).

“I tell the board and our shareholders, our first KPI is heartshare, not marketshare.”

Which makes for a great soundbite, but what does it mean? When Anthony Thompson launched Metrobank in the U.K., he too had a single KPI for all of his staff, which was customer satisfaction, as measured by net promoter scores. If Güven is implementing metrics for happiness, he isn’t sharing what those are.

“Of course we can talk profits and customer numbers,” Güven said, but then declined to do so.

To be fair to Güven, the other V.B.s aren’t talking such numbers either – and it may be a while before this becomes relevant. All the newcomers share the goal of making their customers happy and winning their trust, and that is going to take a few years.

But that doesn’t mean metrics go out the window. There will still need to be business models against which these banks are judged – and it’s not clear what any of those will be.

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Banking & Payments

APIs are about to get real in Hong Kong

October marks a key deadline for open banking, and the issues are mounting.

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Bi Mingqiang, CNBCI

Open banking, which regulators around the world are pushing, is about sharing customer and product data among banks, fintechs and merchants.

It’s a move that banks have resisted, but those in Hong Kong are meant to meet an escalating schedule of openness as laid out by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which wants data shared via API (application programming interfaces – software that connects other software).

October is something of a “crossing the Rubicon” moment for the industry. Instead of simply listing bank-product information, banks must now have to actually begin to share sensitive data.

“Open banking is revolutionary,” said Bi Mingqiang, president and CEO at China CITIC Bank International, speaking at the annual conference of the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers.

Sharing code will make banks transparent – which means at some point they may be hard to distinguish among a variety of intermediaries and vendors, with customers free to cherry pick products and services.

“We need to further segment the market and customize our services,” Bi said. “In the future we may not keep strong relationships with our clients. Our only strength with be offering the best products…open API is a game-changer to the banking society.”

What’s the hurry?

In theory. The HKMA’s “Phase 1” implementation, which seems simple enough, is a listing of bank product information for the public to see. Although a handful of banks such as Citi have been proactive, many banks are simply uploading links to their corporate websites. This is legal, as the HKMA simply urges banks to make a “best effort”.

Hardly any banks are likely to meet the October deadline for Phase 2, to let fintechs onboard customers using their data that exists on bank records (meant to be mandatory upon customer request).

Fintechs are predictably annoyed. But the HKMA has been clear from the outset that it is not going to follow the U.K. and European examples of mandating open APIs.

Instead the authorities believe it is up to the industry to come up with the use cases, set standards, and drive this. The HKMA sees its role as spurring competition, but not dictating how everything should work.

In July it said it would set up a technical working group to hash out such matters, including representatives from the banking, fintech and merchant worlds.

Could be messy

This is crucial for the simple reason that right now there are no standards for APIs, which means a customer of Bank A asking for her data to be released to a third party might have to go through the same rigmarole if she also asks Bank B for the same service.

Worse, Hong Kong has 154 licensed banks, plus another eight virtual banks coming online. If APIs aren’t standardized, fintechs would go insane trying to connect to them all.

“We need to create a common base line of what to communicate,” said Mary Huen, Hong Kong CEO at Standard Chartered Bank, speaking at HKIB.

There are some market-based solutions to this. Jetco, an ATM consortium of banks (basically everyone ex-HSBC), has launched its APIX (API Exchange), with a number of smaller banks participating. It is a “many-to-many” network, so banks, fintechs and merchants uploading data can connect easily with multiple players. But so long as banks can drag their feet – or the extent to which third-party service providers don’t see the benefit of such integration – then this will remain an incomplete solution.

And there is even less clarity about the HKMA’s phases 3 and 4, which should jump from sharing information to enabling transactions via API.

Setting standards

SWIFT is one player hoping to leverage this uncertainty to its advantage.

SWIFT handles messaging for crossborder payments among correspondent banks. It manages the identity and security around those messages, which are formatted according to ISO 20022 rules (ISO, International Standards Organization, is a global organization that designs such things for many industries).

“Open banking needs a stable baseline for development, and innovation can come on top of that,” said Lisa O’Conner, SWIFT’s head of capital markets and standards for Asia Pacific. SWIFT has applied its functionality to an API gateway to enable exchange of data (instead of payments information) across its network.

Lisa O’Conner, SWIFT

“It’s like a global version of Jetco,” she said when asked to compare the two platforms.

Some banks might want to share data in one locale, others might want a systematic way to do so worldwide, but she says the goal is interoperability, so that an API exchange here can be replicated seamlessly there.

As open banking gets more complex and burrows more deeply to banks’ core I.T. systems, such alignment will be important to avoid huge costs and fix-its – as is happening in Europe today.

(She also says that regulators and banks looking for models for open API shouldn’t look to Europe: it’s India that has had the best rollout, where banks have long since been trained to focus on end-user experience, and where the government’s API Stack clearly defines APIs.)

More uses cases

Angus Choi, CEO at Jetco, is optimistic more third-party service providers like merchants and fintechs will use Jetco to connect with member banks, and with each other. “APIX will become a venue for more use cases,” he said.

For example, local insurtech CoverGo has recently joined the platform, hoping to market itself to anyone in the market for using its tech to digitalize their services.

Today, Choi says banks don’t see connecting to third parties as core to their business. But digitalization is changing this. “What other industries can they reach, what new customers can they find, what channels can they use to promote their products?” Choi said. “My priority is more use cases.”

That cuts to the heart of open banking: what’s in it for banks? If the HKMA isn’t going to crack the whip to enforce adherence to its four-step outline, then the industry needs to come up with incentives.

The first obvious argument is that it will open new sales channels. But for many banks, that’s not a happy tradeoff if they have to open up information about customer account balances to fintechs or merchants (which is phase 3).

Challenges ahead

Another challenge is around standards for data – sharing it, embedding instructions around its use, ultimately letting customers transact in third-party environments with their bank data.

That also implies common legal agreements so consumers have recourse if something goes wrong. Banks are almost surely going to own responsibility, just as they do in the case of credit-card fraud. This is another reason why they’re reluctant to embrace open APIs.

A third challenge is getting the balance right between opening up data, and abusing it. Aside from the obvious cyber threats, will protocols be set up so that customers have a clear idea of what data they are sharing? How to prevent banks, fintechs or merchants from collecting more data than they need? Should that data come with expiration dates? What’s the procedure should a customer wish to limit data sharing?

A final challenge is how banks and others deal with the unknowns. StanChart’s Huen said, “With new things there are always new risks you can’t anticipate. We need the ability to detect abnormal trends or identify what’s gone wrong.” Just as banks have “fire drills” for conventional breaches and crises, they need to develop playbooks to react to issues arising from open APIs, Huen says.

Ultimately in Hong Kong’s case, this is an experiment in allowing commercial forces to determine the outcomes to these questions. India’s experience involved a much stronger government hand in setting the ground rules, and a culture in which banks were mentally prepared for the change. Europe has been very government-driven, with banks mostly reluctant compliers, but with many unsettled arguments.

Hong Kong is taking an even more free-market approach, and no doubt when October has come and gone, there will be little sign of customer onboarding made easy via APIs. But banks can’t ignore this, either. If there’s no progress, the HKMA could ask the government to legislate stricter rules – an outcome banks would surely regret.

On the other hand, fintechs and merchants should not assume the onus is on the banks. When it comes to inventing use cases, it’s in their interest to invent ideas that will make money for the banks. Data exchange will fail if it’s a blind ally. Better to make it a three-way street.

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“No room for mistakes”: IsBit addresses security challenge