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DHS looks to startups for blockchain solutions

Although federal and state agencies and local communities are exploring blockchain applications,  more work is needed to solve some key problems with the technology. The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, through its Small Business Innovation Research program,  is funding startups that can provide solutions.

In May, S&T awarded  Evernym and Digital Bazaar each $750,000 in Phase 2 funding to solve problems that address four use cases: internet-of-things devices and sensors; processing  of  international travelers; trade facilitation across borders; and identity management.

While the use cases were designed with specific agencies such as Customs and Border Protection in mind, the overall goal of the awards is to develop solutions that can be commercialized for public and private use.  S&T's SBIR funding also supports development of the building blocks for technology solutions, including the development of standards.

Evernym is working to design and implement a decentralized key management system for blockchain. To gain access to a blockchain ledger, each user needs a blockchain wallet, which holds a public and private key pair. Problems can arise when the private key assigned to an individual user is lost and needs to be reissued.

“You need to have control over the blockchain wallet when making attestations or conducting operations that are related to any type of blockchain,” Anil John, a cybersecurity research and development program manager at S&T, told GCN.  “We are interested in solving what happens when a key needs to be revoked or reissued as a foundational layer of the technology to make it work at scale.”

Digital Bazaar’s efforts are centered on creating interoperability across 15 to 20 different platforms used for blockchain implementation. With different security and performance capabilities, blockchain applications are not compatible when it comes to storing data.

“We want to make sure that there is a standardized approach to data that government, private sector and other interested parties can all agree on in an open and transparent manner,” John said. “There is a significant amount of traction with technology providers to come up with standards.”

Digital Bazaar is a member of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Verifiable Claims Working Group that is working to produce royalty-free standards for common data elements that can be used for blockchain implementation.

Work to develop blockchain solutions is also underway through S&T’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program. To address data integrity and anti-spoofing solutions,  Factom last year was awarded $199,000 to look into the applicability of blockchain technology to store data from IoT devices and sensors.

The focus of the award was to use immutable logging to protect IoT data from getting altered through its lifecycle.  As a result of that work, John said, SVIP issued an Other Transaction Solicitation call for in May 2017 to learn more about anti-spoofing technologies to protect  non-person entities such as network hardware and software, wearables and connected sensors that first responders may use.

Each of the IoT devices a responder uses is supported by mobile platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles, communication hubs and other network elements that provide data connectivity.  S&T wants to verify the identity of network elements, wearables and sensor platforms and the data communicated between them.

The call will be open until May 3, 2018, with quarterly reviews to evaluable applications in October and January.

John said he sees the benefit of various groups to look at solving the same problems if there is a significant rate of return on the investment.

“At the end of the road, one of the criteria for any project is making sure that we can do an A/B test with the current process and new technology,” he said.  “We are going to evaluate to make sure that [the research project] provides a significant enough pain-to-gain ratio, where the gain of applying and reviewing the technology is worth the pain of integrating the technology with our existing processes.”

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at sfriedman@gcn.com or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.


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