Deloitte Digital, based at the Gasworks in Belfast, is working on innovations in blockchain with a specialist team. One of their blockchain experts, Maxine Glennerster, recently won the FDM Everywoman award for Software Engineering.
A mathematician who entered Deloitte five years ago in a graduate scheme, Maxine has travelled the globe talking to clients about what blockchain can achieve. She talked me through their recent development, Smart ID.
“Smart ID, using blockchain, allows people to share ID information more easily and have less places to maintain it. For example they can transfer specific aspects of their ID without having to share every data berth,” Maxine said.
I noted that identification is one of the central constructs of a blockchain, so it seems a good place to start. How does Smart ID work?
“For instance, if I wanted to undertake a task like opening a bank account, the institution would need to run ‘Know Your Customer’ (KYC) checks to ensure I was who I said I was. Smart ID can expedite the process from both the user’s and the institution’s perspective,” said Maxine. “Data that has already been checked and verified can be transferred digitally, immediately.”
Is this about owning your own data (as a customer)?
Maxine said, “It can help customers control what aspects of their ID are viewed. Another example is that when someone is trying to get into a bar, they would want the bouncer to see their photograph, name and birthdate, but not their driver’s license class or number. This ID check would be more secure by only sharing the data fields that are needed.”
By making identity check processes more efficient, this could save banks millions. Can this go beyond banking? Can government services benefit?
“If you look at each type of ID that you hold, for example a drivers license, passport or utility bills, they are each an attribute that you could upload to a Smart ID, but each attribute has different data points that would be relevant,” said Maxine.
“Government services – such as renewing a drivers license – could become more efficient if they only reviewed which attributes they need to.”
Why is an underlying blockchain so important to this?
Maxine explained, “The data is stored as a hash and the hash is also used as a verification. A hash immediately checks to ensure that info is verified. The data should be the same as the last time it was entered, that no data has been changed. If not, warnings are placed and the hash is not verified. It’s more secure than normal encryption. Encryption is two-way but hashing cannot be reverse engineered.”
What technology do you build upon?
Maxine told me, “We use Ethereum, the underlying blockchain platform. It’s a public structure that can be configured to be private. We’ve also explored the Hyperledger, it could possibly be an alternative.”
What other innovations are Deloitte looking into?
“We started to look at blockchain, with a team of about 12 experts in Belfast, around two years ago,” said Maxine. “We wanted to focus on financial services and smart ID and smart contracts first. But there are implications for blockchain in industries such as the oil industry – where supply chain models and the lifecycle of a product need to be securely tracked. Another area would be a voting application, where votes could be tracked ensuring there are no fraudulent votes added so it cannot be corrupted – all users need to know a vote has been verified.”
Is blockchain something that every software engineer needs to master?
Maxine said, “The way I see it, blockchain is just another tool in my toolkit. But I believe that knowing blockchain has been helpful to me. I think it helped me stand out in the FDM Award.”
She continued, “But in general, software engineers need to touch upon new technologies all the time, and be comfortable using them.”
The way you helped me understand the Smart ID system was in retail banking, but I presume there are commercial motivations for using it in investment banking as well?
“Absolutely, we’re looking at more than just identifying a person – it can be used just as effectively to verify asset trading,” said Maxine.
Is the blockchain completely secure?
“In the case of Ethereum they have poured a lot of money into security – specifically looking at how if developers haven’t closed down all loopholes, people couldn’t take advantage of them,” she said.
Does the blockchain mean we’ll have less privacy with our personal information than ever before?
“I believe that’s the way things are going anyway, with more of our personal data available online, and hopefully blockchain will make things more secure,” Maxine concluded.