International payments are a complete mess
Let’s cut to the chase — the intricate world of international payments is a complete mess. With lengthy processing times, high transaction fees and unpredictable exchange rates, challenges abound for individuals and businesses.
These hurdles in the traditional financial system harshly impacted me and my family during a critical time of need. In 2020, after the destruction caused by Typhoon Goni, the urgency of sending money to my family living in the Philippines became a stark reality.
And the traditional method that I had to resort to took days; each moment of delay carried potentially dangerous consequences. What made the situation worse was the fee attached to the transaction. Instead of the whole sum going towards helping the village purchase essential resources and supplies, $40 went into the pockets of the processor.
Then, to pick up the payment, my family had to navigate flood-damaged terrain, fearing robbery due to the sizable amount of fiat they were now carrying. In a digital age, the technology for secure transactions eluded them. Ironic, isn’t it?
After COVID-19, our world is undeniably more globally connected than it has ever been, and we are seeing a surge in cross-border transactions for goods, services, remittance support and the gig economy. We need a payment infrastructure that supports these growing needs. Blockchain technology became the forerunner solution to revolutionize these payments, reducing inefficiencies, offering settlements in real-time and lowering transaction costs.
After digging into the technology, I was determined to help its development. Creating a simple solution that would have helped my family during a personal crisis became my passion: leveraging cryptographic technology to solve real-world problems for real people.
The elephant in the room, however, is the glaring lack of privacy in both traditional systems and blockchains.
The fire we’re playing with
Despite the potential of the technology to transform this field, we have yet to find a method of value transfer that achieves the delicate balance between transparency for compliance and privacy for individual protection.
For businesses, the public nature exposes strategies, negotiations and potentially sensitive financial information to competitors and the broader public. For individuals, it can be downright dangerous.
Most existing “trustless” blockchain solutions sacrifice privacy entirely, raising concerns about the implications of successful blockchain payments where anyone can scrutinize the amounts and timing of transactions.
This means that if you pay a freelancer in USDC, you can see how much they make for any other job, or if you buy a coffee with bitcoin, that interaction with a public blockchain means your real-time location is broadcasted not just to your friends, but to anyone anywhere in the world.
On the other hand, transparency in financial systems can be a good thing. It helps dissuade bad actors from activities like ransoms or funding criminal endeavors. We don’t want financial ecosystems that make it easy to hide malicious activity.
While blockchains offer streamlined solutions for use cases like remittances, the exposure of transaction details introduces risks to the senders and recipients, posing threats in both cyber and physical realms.
Your digital human rights
As technology progresses, there’s an overwhelming focus on safety measures like anti-terrorist financing protections. While this work is absolutely critical, we’ve overlooked in this pursuit a fundamental digital life principle: Privacy is a human right, not a “human option.” It protects people from unwarranted interference, identity theft and even one’s own physical safety.
Read more from our opinion section: Old money doesn’t ruin the cypherpunk dream
Technology itself exists to prevent bad actors while providing privacy to everyday people. It’s a false dichotomy to assume “privacy” is a dirty word. A wise man said, “we should all have something to hide.” A world without privacy is a world without progress.
Financial transactions, regardless of their origin or method, should be private from prying eyes as long as they are compliant. Many blockchain technologies were designed with transparency in mind, which presents significant challenges. While blockchain is key to secure financial transactions, it must evolve to protect users’ privacy effectively.
The roadmap to international financial privacy
So, what’s next? We need to progress with the global economy, not against it. Payment systems must evolve with global economic trends — a harmonious blend of innovation and regulation, where privacy and efficiency coexist.
With every harmony, there are checks and balances. Compliance plays a significant role in balancing a customer’s right to privacy and adhering to regulatory requirements. Innovative technologies coming into existence that check both boxes — protecting against potentially malicious transactions along with customers’ personal information and identities — are necessary to solve the problem.
As the world becomes more interconnected, the demand for privacy increases. And if we want blockchain to succeed in cross-border payments, we have to adopt a framework that not only meets today’s demands, but is also prepared for tomorrow’s challenges. You shouldn’t have to choose between speed and security, low cost and privacy.
Sara Drakeley is the CEO of Sentz, a cryptocurrency company that she joined as the third engineering hire in August 2018. With a diverse background spanning animation, finance, and aerospace, Sara found her passion in the booming world of cryptocurrency in the boom of 2017. Her expertise in procedural geometry and her desire to impact people’s lives led her to Sentz, where she played a key role in implementing SGX attestation procedures, contributing to consensus protocol development, building the company’s initial infrastructure, and the development of MobileCoin Fog, enabling secure mobile transactions without exposing private keys. Previously, as Sentz’s CTO, she led the company’s research branch, exploring smart contracts, zero-knowledge proofs, and ways to enhance the protocol. Prior to joining the company, Sara worked for household names such as SpaceX, Engineer Gate, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and was a researcher at MIT Media Lab. She holds a dual degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Mathematics with Computer Science and Comparative Media Studies. Sara is based in San Francisco, California.