Amid a flurry of negative publicity for bitcoin, technology advocates are trying to distance themselves from the digital currency as part of a bid to protect the perception of more enterprise-facing blockchain initiatives.
The change of public positioning follows an uptick in ransomware attacks using bitcoin as the medium of payment, the most recent of which (after causing major disruption within the UK's National Health Service and elsewhere) has sparked a global conversation.
At a briefing for congressional staff on Tuesday covering the potential uses of blockchain technology in the US healthcare system, the Chamber of Digital Commerce and a panel of other blockchain specialists acknowledged that the ransomware issue is again opening old wounds caused by the technology's association with illicit uses of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.
In response, panelists sought to draw clear lines between the two technologies.
"A lot of these initial attacks have been on healthcare systems and healthcare companies. This has come onto our radar because the ransomware is asking for the ransom in bitcoin," Perianne Boring, president of the Digital Chamber of Commerce, told an audience of roughly 70 healthcare and technology-focused staffers from congressional offices.
Elsewhere, the panelists sought to categorize bitcoin as merely "one application" of blockchain technology.
Srinivas Attili, senior vice president and partner at IBM Global Business Services, told attendees:
"Blockchain [gets] a lot of bad rap because of bitcoin, in my view. Bitcoin is just one application of blockchain, and you can have hundreds of applications of blockchain."
Blockchain good, bitcoin bad
Just how much regulatory attention is being aimed at bitcoin in the wake of the incidents is unclear, though a member of Congress introduced a bill Tuesday ordering the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a threat assessment regarding the use of virtual currencies by terrorists and criminals.
It's happened before, so advocates worry bitcoin's bad press will rub off on blockchain.
Attili drew the comparison to Amazon being just one among a countless number of businesses built on the HTTP protocol, and highlighted Hyperledger as a promising blockchain technology suite that he believes is isolated from any nefarious activity associated with cryptocurrencies.
"It's built for business. There's no concept of cryptocurrencies on Hyperledger," he said.
Yet, Micah Winkelspecht, chief executive of Gem, a blockchain solutions company, did defend bitcoin, asserting that it's serving a legitimate use as a means of exchanging value.
"Bitcoin is to those types of attacks as the dollar is to the drug trade. Just because the dollar exists doesn't mean that it's the cause of the drug trade. Bitcoin is just a tool that these criminals are using because it is a good form of exchanging value. It's actually serving a really good purpose as an exchange of value. They are leveraging it as a tool."
"Blaming bitcoin for ransomware would be like blaming the Federal Reserve for any illicit transaction that happens in cash," Boring added.
Recasting the narrative
Still, the damage dealt by the ransomware attacks, compounded by past black eyes like Mt Gox and Silk Road, may cut deeper than many in the cryptocurrency community may wish to recognize.
Congressional staffers speaking privately after the event said the concept of blockchain must be, to all intents and purposes, disassociated from bitcoin to gain serious traction in the legislative arena.
Boring tried to flip the narrative by saying that, instead of blaming bitcoin for the attacks, there should be greater focus on the potential of blockchain to protect against ransomware and other cyberattacks in the future.
"I would even argue that when we talk about protecting our healthcare systems or other systems that might be vulnerable to ransomware or other types of cyberattacks, that blockchain technology could be the silver bullet to protecting our infrastructure."
Winkelspecht concurred, arguing that blockchain could provide a better, more secure way to store data as hackers become more sophisticated in the future.
"Before, we used to see attacks that were more DDoS – they were attacks on infrastructure trying to bring systems down," he said. "Now we're starting to see more infiltration. They're basically putting a ransom on data because that data is so valuable and they know that people will pay to unlock it."
Winkelspecht predicted that the next phase of cyberattacks will be "data integrity" attacks that involve breaking into a system and actually altering existing data in a way that "tricks" downstream systems.
"Those are the most dangerous and potentially the most costly types of attacks because you may not know it's happening for literally years," he explained.
The immutability of blockchain technologies, though, could be the only true line of defense against such intrusions, he said adding:
"One of the things that blockchains can provide is an immutable proof of data integrity. We can guarantee beyond a shadow of a doubt that data has not been modified or changed."
Washington, DC, image via Shutterstock