Visa will adopt blockchain – but what exactly is it?

By anna smith

Visa has announced a new pilot project in Europe in collaboration with blockchain startup BTL Group.  Visa's London based innovation lab, Visa Europe Colab, design a pilot to test how blockchain technology can be used in cross-border money transfers.

What exactly is this technology that Visa has been investigating for 18 months? Why is it causing such a stir in the financial industry?

  • According to the Financial Times, “A blockchain is a shared digital database that allows transactions to be recorded and verified electronically over a network of computers without a central ledger.”
  • Digital records are collated into blocks. These “blocks” are cryptographically and chronologically bound into a “chain” using complex mathematical algorithms. If all computers agree on the answer, each block gets a unique digital signature. This is called hashing.
  • Because blockchain is distributed, it’s more immune to cyberattacks. Hackers would have to get access to every copy of the database simultaneously to carry out a successful attack.
  • The hash can’t be converted back into the original data. The process is irreversible.
  • Blockchain isn’t new – the idea came about a couple of decades ago. However, it came to prominence in 2008 with the birth of Bitcoin.  Blockchain is the technology underpinning the digital currency.
  • Financial services such as Visa are excited about blockchain – it could remove the need for middlemen, regulators will have access to a transparent ledger of transactions and dealings will be speedier.
  • There are down sides though. Mining (the process behind blockchain) requires a large amount of energy. Furthermore, the high initial costs of blockchain are high.
     

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