Thoughts on the Libra blockchain: too centralised, not private, and won’t help the unbanked

Facebook recently announced a new project, Libra, whose mission is to be “a simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people”. The announcement has predictably been met with scepticism by organisations like Privacy International, regulators in the U.S. and Europe, and the media at large. This is wholly justified given the look of the project’s website, which features claims of poverty reduction, job creation, and more generally empowering billions of people, wrapped in a dubious marketing package.

To start off, there is the (at least for now) permissioned aspect of the system. One appealing aspect of cryptocurrencies is their potential for decentralisation and censorship resistance. It wasn’t uncommon to see the story of PayPal freezing Wikileak’s account in the first few slides of a cryptocurrency talk motivating its purpose. Now, PayPal and other well-known providers of payment services are the ones operating nodes in Libra.

There is some valid criticism to be made about the permissioned aspect of a system that describes itself as a public good when other cryptocurrencies are permissionless. These are essentially centralised, however, with inefficient energy wasting mechanisms like Proof-of-Work requiring large investments for any party wishing to contribute.

There is a roadmap towards decentralisation, but it is vague. Achieving decentralisation, whether at the network or governance level, hasn’t been done even in a priori decentralised cryptocurrencies. In this sense, Libra hasn’t really done worse so far. It already involves more members than there are important Bitcoin or Ethereum miners, for example, and they are also more diverse. However, this is more of a fault in existing cryptocurrencies rather than a quality of Libra.

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Digital Exclusion and Fraud – the Dark Side of Payments Authentication

Today, the Which? consumer rights organisation released the results from its study of how people are excluded from financial services as a result of banks changing their rules to mandate that customers use new technology. The research particularly focuses on banks now requiring that customers register a mobile phone number and be able to receive security codes in SMS messages while doing online banking or shopping. Not only does this change result in digital exclusion – customers without mobile phones or good network coverage will struggle to make payments – but as I discuss in this post, it’s also bad for security.

SMS-based security codes are being introduced to help banks meet their September 2019 deadline to comply with the Strong Customer Authentication requirements of the EU Payment Services Directive 2. These rules state that before making a payment from a customer’s account, the bank must independently verify that the customer really intended to make this payment. UK banks almost universally have decided to meet their obligation by sending a security code in an SMS message to the customer’s mobile phone and asking the customer to type this code into their web browser.

The problem that Which? identified is that some customers don’t have mobile phones, some that do have mobile phones don’t trust their bank with the number, and even those who are willing to share their mobile phone number with the bank might not have network coverage when they need to make a payment. A survey of Which? members found that nearly 1 in 5 said they would struggle to receive the security code they need to perform online banking transactions or online card payments. Remote locations have poorer network coverage than average and it is these areas that are likely to be disproportionately affected by the ongoing bank branch closure programmes.

Outsourcing security

The aspect of this scenario that I’m particularly interested in is why banks chose SMS messages as a security technology in the first place, rather than say sending out dedicated authentication devices to their customers or making a smartphone app. SMS has the advantage that customers don’t need to install an app or have the inconvenience of having to carry around an extra authentication device. The bank also saves the cost of setting up new infrastructure, other than hooking up their payment systems to the phone network. However, SMS has disadvantages – not only does it exclude customers in areas of poor network coverage, but it also effectively outsources security from the bank to the phone networks.

Continue reading Digital Exclusion and Fraud – the Dark Side of Payments Authentication