ING’s blockchain specialist outlines tech’s developments

By David Beach | 3 January 2018

Senior Program Manager of Blockchain at ING, Mariana Gomez de la Villa, spoke to bobsguide about receiving a personal email from Vitalik Buterin in response to her team’s ZKRP contribution to the blockchain ecosystem. 

How did you come to be the Senior Program Manager of blockchain at ING?

I come from the payments world and never imagined that one day I would be working in blockchain; I started working when the intranet was only beginning to take off let alone any talk of blockchain. People often make the comparison between the emergence of the internet and blockchain, and I spent the start of my career in payments within emerging technologies. ING called me to ask for my help on the innovation side of one of their most mature European products. I was the initiative lead for international payments with ING on blockchain.

So I don’t have a computer science background but I think it’s important to have someone versed in the product side to keep the technology development relevant. I think we complement each other as an innovation team. The developers, who are brilliant mathematicians would teach me the technical side of blockchain and I’d provide that grounding in the real-world application.

In effect, I was interpreting really complex mathematical explanations and then explaining in simple terms to ING executives how those explanations would impact markets, and all this in English!

What did the ING blockchain team uncover in their development?

At ING, we’ve been exploring blockchain for four years and our exploration team did a lot of proof of concepts to see if the technology was going to live up to its hype. In February 2017, we launched our first pilot which uncovered some specific challenges:

Scalability Particularly when you’re using proof of work (PoW) which is one of the consensus algorithms, but there are other consensus algorithms out there for other distributed ledgers not necessarily blockchains. Technically speaking, that’s a major difference but still, blockchains using PoW would have the scalability problem.

Confidentiality and privacy This came about when we tried to implement the blockchain for one of the use cases in international payments. We realised that we needed to hide the balance of the transactions to other participating nodes so we explored the cryptographic side a little more including ring signatures and eventually settled on zero-knowledge. From there we derived the zero-knowledge range proofs to make it more efficient and targeted.

How sustainable is blockchain as a technology in the financial services?

ING is more interested in distributed ledger technology (DLT) which forms the umbrella under which blockchain would sit. We strongly believe that distributed ledger technology is here to stay - the deliverables we’ve had as a team is a clear example. Within ING, we’re an established team and we have management’s support and we’re linked to the strategy of ING as a whole.

We spoke to the chief innovation officer about ING’s innovation structure. What’s it like to work in?

We have the three C’s approach which is very client centric and allows us to empower our clients. Blockchain is also embedded within our own innovation methodology, PACE. Innovation runs in our blood, in our DNA, and it becomes integral in our day to day operations where we can afford to be agile and flexible with ideas. That flexibility, as with disbanding our development of ring signatures, allows us to make better informed decisions as an organisation.

From your perspective, as an innovator within a bank, do you think legacy banks are doing enough towards innovation?

I really believe the banks are trying. What I like about being in the distributed ledger eco-system is that you see a lot of collaboration between banks who normally would be competing with each other. The nature of blockchain means that to fully leverage the technology you need to form networks and partnerships. That’s why ING joined R3 and why we’re founding partners of Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. Our track record with innovation at ING is exceptional and a lot of that is because we partner with other institutions who also promote co-creation.

What exactly is the Zero-Knowledge Range Proof solution and how does it differ?

It’s quite simple really. A zero-knowledge proof is me trying to prove to you that I know a secret without revealing what that secret actually is. Normally, zero-knowledge proofs require a certain amount of resources by virtue of being generic. Therefore, in a network that has limited resources, we wanted to have a more efficient proof. In addition, within our use cases we saw the majority of the time, the ‘secret’ value came down to a number, whether it’s a balance, a credit line or a salary, it was always a number. We then looked to narrow down towards implementing a zero-knowledge range proof. In simple terms, that means how do you hide one number within a range of numbers? Obviously for that to be in the algorithm it needs to have a specific size and have properties such as having to be complete, sound and have that zero-knowledge aspect. In order for us to reach the efficiency we wanted we made it non-interactive which means you don’t need a verifier to give you random challenges to complete the proof. Also, the computationally intensive generation of prerequisites and commitment to the secret value is done beforehand, so when a range is given for the proof it takes less time to calculate the proof for that range.

Where would you use zero-knowledge range proofs?

One way may be if I need to prove that I am over the legal age to a cashier, but don’t want to disclose the actual piece of information for privacy, for instance. Another may be in applications for mortgages - I don’t necessarily want to disclose the actual figure of my salary, so this algorithm would prove it without disclosing.

What is the future of Zero-Knowledge Range proofs?

For us, this is only one stepping stone if you think of the way things are evolving right now. We hope that we can build upon this contribution to the ecosystem by open sourcing it. By sharing it, we can be challenged on our own technology and that only leads to more improvements.

In terms of future use cases, we developed this proof with identity verification in mind, but the use cases are limitless within the financial industry. Every aspect of financial institutions can use this technology as we’re treating numbers.

Do you foresee blockchain technology converging with the other emerging tech in finance?

I’m lucky enough to report to same person who also covers advanced analytics at ING. We’re in close contact around discussions with our technologies, we literally sit back to back in the office. We believe that one of the technologies will complement the other in a way; when they do, it’ll be mind blowing what we’ll be able to do.

There is a huge new world out there when you combine the three technologies of blockchain, AI and big data.

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