Three Dutch banks have announced that they are experimenting with blockchain technology as a way of improving their payments systems.
That ING, ABN Amro and Rabobank are all testing the technology was aired last Monday in a segment on the Netherland's popular RTL evening news.
ING's global head of transaction services Mark Buitenhek (pictured) told RTL that his bank has been improving on technology that was built in the '70s and '80s, explaining:
"We have improved the speed of transactions since then, up to where we are today," he said. "As such, we are always looking out for the latest technological breakthroughs to improve this even further. This is why ING is testing blockchain technology."
ING spokesman Robert Gunther added the company is always trying to innovate and improve the speed and utility of money transfers for customers.
Framing the blockchain technology underlying bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as a potential way to advance payment services, Gunther said:
"By using bitcoin technology, banks might be able to update customer accounts within seconds. The question now is whether this would indeed be possible, and if so, at what risks. Apart from the functionality, our focus will always be on security as well."
Combining bank security with bitcoin
Menno van Leeuwen, the team leader at the bank's Innovation Centre, was quoted as saying:
"Banks are faced with competitors from outside of the traditional financial sector, who come up with new solutions. If we ignore these developments, that might lead to surprises, which is undesirable ... As banks, we have a lot experience in the field of providing customers with security, and we're currently testing the combination with bitcoin."
Rabobank official Wiebe Draijer also acknowledged his bank's interest in blockchain technology on the RTL show.
"There's a lot of developments happening with [blockchain] technology," he said. "It's interesting to see what kind of feature this holds, and whether it will influence the banking system."
RTL confirmed that Rabobank is testing blockchain technology, including bitcoin, although a spokesperson told CoinDesk that the bank is not interested in using bitcoin directly – either its currency or network – but is interested in researching how the technology works.
Limited central bank approval
It is still unclear exactly what kind of experiments the banks are conducting at this point, and to what extent they are considering the integration of bitcoin.
There is also the issue of how far such experiments would be allowed to progress by the country's financial authorities.
The Dutch central bank (DNB) warned the nation's financial institutions of the risks involved with dealing in bitcoin last June, and stated that it does not consider bitcoin a viable alternative to fiat currency.
While reaffirming the DNB's stance on bitcoin, central bank spokesman Martijn Pols indicated it does approve of experimentation with blockchain technology.
"We are not in charge of everything banks do, and we are happy to let them experiment with any technology that might innovate their payment services," he said.
"But Dutch banks won't actually be using bitcoin themselves in any way," he continued. "We still hold our initial position as released in June of this year, in which we classified virtual currencies as products with a very high-risk profile, and because of the anonymous features, a high-integrity risk."
Although this initial position was mostly based on bitcoin in its role as a currency and not so much the payments network, Pols excludes the possibility of banks using the latter as well.
Dutch banks, he said, are allowed to learn from bitcoin, are free to experiment with blockchain technology and are even encouraged to integrate similar technologies into their own payment services.
Pols concluded, however:
"It is absolutely out of the question that these banks will transfer money over the actual bitcoin blockchain out of reach from the Dutch central bank."
Mark Buitenhek (of ING) image via RTN Nieuws