Crypto Has a Trust Problem, and Illinois Tech Professor Has a Solution



By Scott Lewis
Associate Professor of Finance Benjamin Van Vliet

Fraud, terrorist financing, money laundering. All too often, when cryptocurrency is in the headlines, the news isn’t good.

“Finance depends on trustworthy institutions, and the problem with the cryptocurrency industry is who do you trust,” says Benjamin Van Vliet, associate professor of finance at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business. Van Vliet’s research and teaching focuses on fintech, high-frequency trading, and ethics and strategic innovation in financial markets.

In his research paper titled “A Model of Decentralized Oversight for the Digital Asset Industry with an Example Anti-Money Laundering/Know-Your Customer Standard,” recently published in the Journal of Payments Strategy and Systems, Van Vliet proposes that the cryptocurrency industry adopts decentralized oversight through globally recognized standards in order to address the trust issue, reduce the potential for bad actors, and mitigate problems that can reflect poorly on the industry as a whole.

The traditional way for financial institutions to establish trust, he explains, is by complying with rules-based regulations in their countries, where the national government has centralized authority over the currency and financial markets. However, cryptocurrency presents a new paradigm of global, decentralized finance.

“Bitcoin is global, and maybe having 150 different countries’ regulatory regimes isn’t the best way of establishing trust,” says Van Vliet. “Instead of requiring individual investors to understand and navigate the mess of all these regulatory structures, it would be a lot easier, and I think more effective, to have decentralized oversight through industry-defined management and ethical standards that are global, not local.”

Such a model for decentralized oversight already exists and has been used for decades in many industries, though not in finance, he notes. International Organization for Standardization (ISO) management standards are industry-specific and spell out industry norms that companies must follow in order to be certified.

“More than a million companies worldwide adhere to ISO management standards in the chemical, medical, oil, and aerospace industries, as well as others,” Van Vliet says. “They adhere to ISO standards because it facilitates global trade and the establishment of trust across borders. It’s how I can know whether to trust that a supplier I use is not a scammer. If they are ISO certified it gives me some confidence.”

In addition to making the case in his paper for developing new management standards for the digital asset industry within the global ISO audit structure, Van Vliet also presents a model for verifying compliance with standards for anti-money laundering and know-your-customer processes for decentralized finance using a public blockchain.

Van Vliet is hoping his paper will gain traction and spur discussion within the finance industry and among government regulators. “The Journal of Payments Strategy and Systems is an industry-oriented journal that is subscribed to by more than 100 central banks around the world,” he says, “so the audience is going to be people in regulatory decision-making roles.”

“One of the main issues is combating the use of cryptocurrency to finance terrorism. That’s an urgent problem that needs to be addressed, and here’s a standard that might help address that problem today. So let’s see if we can get that standard up and running and see if it works.”