What Is Blockchain?

A Q&A with Wesley Jamieson ’13, a lead blockchain technical resource at the accounting firm RSM US LLP

Wesley Jamieson ’13 (right) and colleagues during a course recording session for AICPA (American Institute of CPAs).

To get started, can you explain what a blockchain is and how one works?

A blockchain is a distributed ledger—a record of events that is shared and updated in real time between many parties, where transactions are recorded and where trust in the confirmation of a transaction is the responsibility of computers distributed around the globe. Blockchain technology is often called immutable; however, it is really “append only”—meaning you cannot directly delete information once entered into a blockchain, instead you can send an update to the system, creating a fully verifiable log of changes. A blockchain, therefore, ensures that any piece of information or value maintained on it is provably, digitally unique.

To explain what all that means through an example, here at RSM we have developed a blockchain solution for the food and beverage industry called ClearThru. ClearThru effectively translates data into a blockchain-readable format. Take, for example, oranges. Using ClearThru, the information coming from growers, producers, packers, shippers, distributors, and retailers can all be bundled and cryptographically stored on a blockchain platform to allow for more accessible and accurate information about the orange in various states throughout the supply chain. Through the utilization of blockchain technology, ClearThru also allows clients to generate a QR code on the oranges that provides a verifiable and trustworthy source of provenance for the oranges directly to the consumer. This moves our clients away from a fragmented system to a more transparent, secure, and efficient system that captures the entire value chain, and it creates a fully auditable trail of transactions and information.

Over time, we may see the ability for value transfers, authorizations, supporting documentation in digital form, and the related journal entries on both sides of a transaction to be recorded on a blockchain. This could result in a shift away from retrospective auditing to a more real-time review of clients’ books by external auditors and regulators.

Tell us a bit about your position and how you became interested in this line of work.

I am a lead blockchain technical resource in RSM’s Blockchain and Digital Asset Management Consulting practice. I act as a subject matter expert on client engagements and internal projects related to the use of blockchain or digital assets across our three lines of business—audit, tax, and consulting. I am involved with the education of the firm on blockchain technology and its impact to our clients, and I have developed and delivered presentations, workshops, and educational courses on blockchain both internally and externally. My primary focus today is on helping our clients implement enterprise blockchain systems and navigate the lack of tax and regulatory guidance from the IRS and other governmental bodies.

I’ve always had an interest in finance and the stock market, which was definitely cemented during my time at Taft, where I participated in the Economics and Investment Club. While I was studying accounting and financial management at Bucknell University, I had a summer internship at an asset management firm. Looking back at what seems like a stroke of luck, I was tasked with giving a presentation to the firm on Bitcoin. This ultimately led me to blockchain technology.

After the internship, I continued to spend numerous hours each day researching the space. Ultimately, I began my professional career at RSM as a tax associate. I knew blockchain has the capability to drastically alter finance and particularly the accounting profession, so I asked our senior leadership how the firm was preparing for blockchain. In another instance of luck, they were just beginning to assemble an internal task force to explore what blockchain meant for the firm, and I became involved through that.

You mentioned Bitcoin. Can you clear up the confusion over the relationship between blockchain, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies?

Blockchain is the technology that underpins Bitcoin. Blockchain, as we now know it, and Bitcoin were essentially invented simultaneously. Today, blockchain also underpins almost all other cryptocurrencies. One can think of cryptocurrencies as a mechanism to transfer value, information, or ownership of property securely across a blockchain network. Additionally, a blockchain can be used without cryptocurrencies.

Where do you see blockchain technology going in the future?

In the future, blockchain could act as the new digital infrastructure that will connect and allow other technological innovations. Similar to the internet in the early 1990s, no one could have predicted Facebook, Google, etc., and no one will quite predict what blockchain will provide in future decades.

We’re already seeing blockchain permeate every industry and facet of life. There are two use cases of blockchain that I think help speak to its potential— decentralized identity and nonprofit.

Decentralized identity is the idea of individuals directly owning and maintaining their own data, including certifications like college degrees or a CPA license; government-issued documents, such as driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers; and even health records in a digitized format secured through a blockchain that is immune to ransomware attacks. With decentralized identity, an individual can allow a doctor, prospective employer, or government agency to access only pertinent information and revoke that access when it is no longer required. This could reduce the amount of customer information exposed through cyberattacks, as well as cut down on time spent verifying information.

A United Nations World Food Programme blockchain pilot is another interesting example. Today, one million Syrian refugees have their irises scanned into a decentralized identity tied to a virtual wallet loaded with a digital certificate representing a Jordanian dollar. Refugees purchase daily essentials at certain local stores using iris scanners. The cost is then deducted from their account and transmitted to the merchant’s virtual wallet. The merchant then exchanges the digital certificate with the UN for local currency. The UN no longer needs to organize expensive shipments of supplies that may be susceptible to theft or interception, so the UN can now focus on building the local economy to boost economic growth and work to stabilize regions.

—Hillary Dooley