2021 was when Bitcoin became a trillion-dollar asset class and appears to have become a tipping point for institutional interest in cryptocurrencies. A recent survey carried out by Nataxis Investment Managers found that 28% of institutions had already invested in crypto, while nearly a third plan to increase their cryptocurrency allocations.
The significance of this shift shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, banks have had several years to prepare for the possibility that crypto could be the next big asset class, but few of them chose to take the bet. Why? Because the regulatory concerns were simply too great when weighed against the overall value proposition of crypto.
So, it’s telling that the trillion-dollar year for Bitcoin seems to have swung the pendulum in the other direction. The regulatory environment hasn’t changed significantly, but the opportunity is now much greater than in previous years. It means that institutions are prepared to address regulatory challenges head-on, which explains why some of the biggest financial firms are investing so heavily in crypto compliance.
News recently emerged that blockchain investigations firm TRM Labs raised $60 million in Series B funding, with American Express, Visa, Citi, and PayPal all participating. It comes only months after rival player Mastercard acquired crypto analytics firm CipherTrace earlier this year. Visa also recently announced it was setting up an advisory division to support financial firms making a move into digital assets.
The investments indicate the extent to which firms in the financial services sector are willing to go to ensure that they can continue to meet their compliance obligations.
An Onerous Burden
The scale of the compliance burden for banks is already astonishing. A 2020 global survey found that banks spend more than five percent of their total revenues on compliance and are fighting a losing battle in their attempts to reduce costs. Although technology offers some capabilities, such as automation, a large part of the challenge comes from the continued prevalence of paper-based administration.
For example, the average bank onboarding process takes around thirty days. Even when the process depends on electronic copies, customers are still required to submit documents like passports, utility bills, or income statements traditionally issued in paper format.
Furthermore, the process is heavily dependent on human checking, and behavioral experts have previously pointed out that this dependence on individuals is an often-overlooked weak point in the process. Worryingly, nearly 10% of banks also have no process for ensuring that client records remain up to date, meaning they risk another kind of non-compliance with data protection laws like the EU GDPR.
Blockchain-based Identity – With an NFT Twist
Given the challenges, it’s hardly surprising that banks are prepared to invest in on-chain solutions that would help them to better identify illicit users and funds. One project developing a cutting-edge protocol for NFT-based identity issuance could be extremely promising in reducing onboarding time while decreasing firms’ data management obligations.
PhotoChromic operates a blockchain platform that allows people to securely own and verify their identity and personal information. However, unlike many of its competitor projects in the digital identity space, PhotoChromic encapsulates biometric data, government-issued ID documents, and unique personal attributes into a non-fungible token (NFT).
PhotoChromic also uses an innovation called generative art, which takes an image of the person’s face and applies an algorithm to generate an image used on the digital identity. It may be representative of the person’s visage, but if they choose to remain pseudonymous, they can generate any kind of image. However, the resulting generative art will be algorithmically linked to their original picture.
Transforming the Onboarding Process
The net result is an easily-scannable image that can attest to an individual’s identity in real-time. The person can choose to whom they reveal which information, and they always maintain custody over their own identity and documentation. However, from the perspective of financial institutions, such a solution could offer significant potential to transform the onboarding process. The NFT identity is unique and impossible to falsify or copy. It’s very simple to authenticate and could even be checked by machines without requiring human verification.
Some of the biggest opportunities are in the potential to remove the need to keep copies of customers’ identity documents. The customer themselves retains full ownership over all of their personal data via the NFT – the KYC process becomes a mere scanning exercise, similar to a rail conductor checking a train ticket before boarding. As a result, financial institutions can significantly reduce their compliance burden with data protection regulations.
Furthermore, the ability to easily verify users and their asset ownership offer banks and financial institutions a vast amount of freedom to operate in the cryptocurrency space. It means they can consider new digital asset services and features, secure in the knowledge that they aren’t creating additional risks of money laundering or onboarding illicit users to their business.
The opportunity for integrating digital assets and all the value in these burgeoning markets is attractive enough. However, the ongoing innovation and development in the blockchain space, offering new ways for banks to combat rising compliance costs, could be an even bigger value creator for the financial sector in the long term.