Beam Wants to Split the Cryptocurrency Atom: Private for Everyone, Auditable If You Want It Beam Wants to Split the Cryptocurrency Atom: Private for Everyone, Auditable If You Want It
02.14.2019

January saw the near-simultaneous launch of two exciting new cryptocurrencies, Beam and Grin. Thanks to that timing, and their shared use of the MimbleWimble privacy protocol, the two projects risk being lumped together—but in fact, they’re different in an array of important, even fundamental ways. The biggest distinction is that, though it’s broadly seen as a ‘privacy coin’ like Monero, Beam is substantially focused on serving businesses, not libertarians or money-launderers.

I recently spoke with Beam CEO Alexander Zaidelson about what his team is aiming to build (we spoke twice, thanks to some technical issues). It’s one of the most audacious and innovative roadmaps I’ve ever come across.

Alexander Zaidelson

“Our longer term vision,” says Zaidelson, “is to create a currency that is not just confidential, but also opt-in compliant.” Translation: If all goes according to plan, Beam will be fully private and untraceable by default. But businesses or individuals that choose to will be able to generate auditable transaction records, and grant access to those records only to individuals they choose.

That could make Beam a better currency for above-board businesses than anything that exists right now, and solve one of the least obvious challenges to mainstream cryptocurrency adoption – the stark choice between total transparency and total opacity. “If I use bitcoin to make a purchase,” Zaidelson says, “almost anyone can see that, which no businessperson would want in their worst nightmare.” Such transparency could reveal a business’s long-term plans to their competitors, or even expose trade secrets by drawing connections to suppliers.

At the same time, using a crypto like Monero leaves nearly no trace at all, which is also bad for business applications. “I cannot present information about my transactions to a third party in a verifiable way,” says Zaidelson. “I can stay completely private, but if I want to play ball with banks and regulators, it is not easy to provide a provable transaction trail.” That could make it nearly impossible, for instance, to provide lasting proof that a supplier was paid properly, or to convince a tax auditor that deductible business spending really happened.

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Zaidelson says his team is still working on designing this key feature, but he speaks with ease and in detail about how they are envisioning it so far. (I can’t say the same for the ease with which I understood every element, so assume any technical inconsistencies in what follows are entirely my fault).

Perhaps most crucially, Zaidelson says, “there is no information whatsoever [about transactions] on the blockchain.” The Beam blockchain, unlike bitcoin, stores only its present state, along with small kernel files that attest to the validity of past transactions, without revealing details.

If it can follow through on its plans, it will offer a unique set of features that solve clear problems for business users. 

“We can use this kernel to store additional [encoded] information,” says Zaidelson, including compressed hashes of documents like invoices or receipts. Those documents could be generated electronically directly through the Beam wallet, but would be themselves stored off-chain. Then, “when I’m undergoing an audit, I can validate that this document matches this particular transaction,” since a cryptographic hash exactly matches one unique set of data and keys. Even this confirmation data would only be accessible to someone holding an “auditor key” given to them by the user seeking to share their spending habits.

All of this, by the way, is opt-in at the point of wallet creation. Only Beam users who want to create an audit trail will have these attestations included in their transaction kernels, and Zaidelson says such kernels will be indistinguishable from their fully-private counterparts. And even if you choose auditability, Zaidelson says that “doesn’t mean there’s a kind of secret backdoor . . . the worst thing that can happen, if people come and take your seed phrase at gunpoint, they can take your funds, [but] they can’t take your transaction history.” That might sound like cold comfort to an individual, but to a business, information could be more important to protect than (digital) cash.

Zaidelson says compliance features are all still being refined, so “we might end up with something slightly different.” Beam’s coming year also includes one other important goal, the implementation of an equivalent of bitcoin’s second-layer Lightning Network, whose speed and scalability is also probably a necessity for real business use. And over the next 18 months, Beam will fork several times, slightly changing its protocol to discourage the development of specialized ASIC mining equipment. Zaidelson says that ASICs “might end up killing the currency” if they emerged too quickly and concentrated in too few hands, but that after a growth period, they’ll be welcome.

Also longer-term, Zaidelson foresees Beam supporting not just currency, but also tokens for assets from stocks to debt, where the same combination of confidentiality and auditability are important. And the 10 percent block reward going to the Beam company and its parallel foundation will be phased out, with Zaidelson envisioning the company either taking on more of a service role, developing software on top of the protocol, or perhaps simply dissolving altogether after a robust community has emerged. That phase-out is another instance of the substantial nuance that appears to have gone into planning Beam.

In the course of explaining these plans, Zaidelson mentions that he’s relatively new to the crypto space, but his deep background in tech leadership make him a likely candidate to actually execute Beam’s plans. And he certainly talks like he belongs here—though with some of his own welcome variations on crypto themes.

“Sovereignty means not just controlling an asset,” he says, “but also ownership of the information on the asset. One might argue that with bitcoin the sovereignty is somewhat limited, because people might know what I’m doing. I don’t really control information, not to the fullest extent.”

To some bitcoin maximalists, those might sound like fighting words, but they’re not easy to dismiss. Bitcoin’s transparency has definite advantages, but even Satoshi overestimated his creation’s privacy. That may not mean Beam is a bitcoin killer—but if it can follow through on its plans, it will offer a unique set of features that solve clear problems for business users. That alone could to make it a major force in shaping the future of cryptocurrency.