The revolution will be tokenized
Since writing about bitcoin rival Ethereum and its visionary creator Vitalik Buterin for Fortune’s 40 Under 40 issue last year, the market for alternative currencies, or digital tokens, has exploded. There’s arguably no hotter (and more bubbly) trend in all of financial technology than the ICO, or initial coin offering, which allows startups pushing blockchain tech, a promising innovation based on shared ledgers, to host crowdfunded sales of bespoke monies. (To learn more about ICOs, read this Q&A I did with my Fortune colleague Erin Griffith.)
On Friday, I spent the day at the Ethereal Summit in Brooklyn, which brought together a motley crew of blockchain acolytes to celebrate the cultural movement—and it is one—that surrounds Ethereum, a system that proponents hope will re-decentralize the Web, taking power away from present-day brokers like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. As I walked around, I stumbled into an art installation—a giant, undulating, plastic bubble heated by a cryptocurrency mining rig, basically a computer blowing off steam as it generates digital currency. The piece resembled a big tarp pillow that you could walk inside, and I learned it was built by an old high school friend. He’s working on a startup that correlates real estate properties and building spaces with these newfangled digital tokens. I’m still vague on the details; he’s mulling an ICO later this year.
Joseph Lubin, CEO of ConsenSys and co-founder of Ethereum, was, unsurprisingly, bullish about the ICO gold rush. “It will be responsible for a great thawing of capital,” he told me, referring to the liquidity of the tokens that fuel ICOs. Token holders can trade these assets online at any time, unlike traditional venture capital investments, which are often locked up until a company reaches an exit of some sort. Despite concerns over ICO legality (are tokens essentially unregistered securities? blockchain boosters say no), Lubin noted that U.S. regulators are hesitant to crack down on the nascent sector for fear of crippling its potential. “They’ve got one eye open,” he said of the regulators.
Justin Newton, CEO of Netki, a Bitcoin wallet startup, and a participant in my blockchain panel at last year’s Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference, told me that he was hesitant to invest in the ICO space because he felt that the founders were generally unsophisticated. If and when investors rush to cash out their tokens, the companies on which they’re based will sink, he said. Newton mentioned that while sharing rides in Lyft cars in recent months, he has met on three separate occasions a few twenty-something students who were interning at crypto hedge funds, firms that hold positions on tokens minted by blockchain startups. “When I was in college you took a job at Wendy’s,” he said.
Critics and boosters alike are comparing this moment in the evolution of blockchain business to the heady dot-com boom of the ’90s. While I was too young to appreciate all the excesses of that extended flight of fancy, I’m certain the echoes are present in today’s token revolution. As one entrepreneur told me, “this is happening right now whether I’m involved or not, so I may as well take advantage.”
In time, it will become more clear who has taken advantage, and who has been taken advantage of.
Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach me via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber (see OTR fingerprint on my about.me), PGP encrypted email (see public key on my Keybase.io), Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.
You would cry too if it happened to you. It was only a matter of time before hackers put a batch of NSA exploits leaked in April to criminal ends. A ransomware worm based on the attack code, dubbed “WannaCry,” spread like wildfire last week, hitting organizations running old and unpatched Microsoft Windows operating systems, as well as those using pirated versions of software, especially in China and Russia. As the clock ran out on Friday, independent security researchers discovered a way to decrypt infected computers—as long as you haven’t rebooted your machine. (Fortune, Time, Reuters, Reuters)
What’s yours is mined. Though the WannaCry ransomware attack soaked up most of the media attention this week, security researchers discovered an even more pervasive and lucrative scam that exploited the same NSA hacking tools. The malware, known as “Adylkuzz,” stealthily mined cryptocurrency on infected machines. Ryan Kalember, cybersecurity strategist at Proofpoint, told Fortune that the WannaCry outbreak would have been far worse had Adylkuzz not compromised so many computers already, since ones hit with Adylkuzz were not able to be reinfected with WannaCry. (CNN Money, Proofpoint)
Sweden gives up on Assange. After a seven year stalemate, Sweden’s top prosecutor dropped an investigation into Julian Assange, publisher of the controversial website WikiLeaks, for alleged sexual assault. “We are not making a statement about his guilt,” the prosecutor clarified, mentioning that the reason for the change was the legal obstacles involved to proceed with the case. UK police said that they would still arrest Assange if he left his refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and it remains unclear whether the U.S. has issued the British government a secret extradition request for him. (Reuters, Associated Press)
Trump vs. FBI. President Donald Trump dismissed James Comey from his post as director of the FBI and as lead on an investigation into the president’s possible campaign ties to the Russian government. Former FBI director Robert Mueller III is taking over the Russia investigation, and the president is now interviewing replacements for the FBI gig. (New York Times, Fortune, Fortune).
In other news, the Orthodox Church in Russia has an unorthodox approach toward cybersecurity. (Heat Street)
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Fortune’s Jeff John Roberts poses an uncomfortable question to Microsoft about whether the company has an obligation to protect customers running old versions of its software. He draws an analogy to chemical and asbestos companies that were forced to establish trusts to clean up past mistakes.
A global ransomware epidemic is winding down, but questions over the fallout are just beginning. Who’s to blame for the crisis that hijacked hundreds of thousands of computers? And can anyone stop such criminals, whose victims included hospitals and police, from striking again? These aren’t easy questions, but one company, Microsoft, has more explaining to do than most. Read more on Fortune.com.
Hack Investigator CrowdStrike Reaches $1 Billion Valuation, by Robert Hackett
Apple Plans Major iCloud Data and App Security Change, by Don Reisinger
ONE MORE THING
Noah’s Ark springs a leak. The entrance to the doomsday seed vault—a safe-haven bored into a mountain in the Arctic where millions of packets of seeds are stored in case of global calamity—submerged under a flow of melting ice thanks to unprecedented warmth and rapidly rising temperatures around the globe. Though the vault itself is safe for now, the incident has many people wondering how resilient the vault truly is. Hege Njaa Aschim of the Norwegian government, which owns the project, told the Guardian, “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that.” Uh-huh. (Guardian)