Why blockchain belongs in government
- By Pete Burke
- Oct 10, 2018
Anyone with a finger on the pulse of the latest cybersecurity trends has probably noticed an increasing number of contributions to the blockchain conversation. The dialogue around blockchain, while loud, clear and growing, has been largely undirected for the past few years. Even as the noise reaches a fever pitch, many of the questions that have been asked since the beginning remain.
Heralded as a great decentralizing force, the blockchain trend has shown that many proponents will stop just short of describing how they predict the distributed-ledger technology will actually evolve and where its unique capabilities may be leveraged.
One thing is clear: The technology is still in its infancy. And while the cryptocurrency application has found its footing, there are few solid examples of how the platform can be put to work for other purposes.
There’s a general agreement that the public sector stands to benefit significantly from the technology, but adoption will be slow. Research on the viability and vulnerabilities of blockchain in government has begun, but use cases are only just being made and testing has not started.
Expect to see more information surface around a federal-level blockchain integration in some of the following areas:
Securing private information
As blockchain transitions from a fringe innovation into a widespread technology, all eyes are on security. The promise of disintermediation is the promise of trust -- by decentralizing the ledger, blockchain makes data corruption extremely difficult.
The technology is not impenetrable, though. Malicious actors have demonstrated the ability to compromise a blockchain by injecting illegal content into the chain, which would then invalidate the rest of the chain, rendering it useless -- clearly a significant problem. Attacks like these must be addressed should blockchain make the anticipated move into the public sector. Multilayer security to protect private keys and keep hackers at bay is mandatory to successfully integrate blockchain into government systems.
While further considerations into security are needed, the current practice of storing information behind a single point of entry, as many agencies do, leaves it vulnerable if that point of entry is compromised by an attacker. Blockchain already has addressed this issue with an added layer of security that traditional storage set-ups don’t have. If a federal agency stored its sensitive information on a blockchain and its network were compromised, the malicious actor would be unable to access the ledger without a private key -- unless the agency did not secure its private keys appropriately.
Private keys do more than add a layer of security between malicious actors and sensitive information, they act as a personal signature, further verifying the source of a transaction. Without access to the key, imitating a user’s credentials becomes impossible. This kind of infallible authentication would be coup for federal IT.
The use cases for the Internal Revenue Service alone are too numerous to count. Agencies focused on health care and financing could also certainly use a new tool for controlling access to their sensitive -- and often targeted -- records. Voting fraud could be all but eliminated with the integration of blockchain. In fact, even voter disenfranchisement and apathy could be mitigated. Voting could be done from home with private keys authenticating user identity. Better access and building trust in the elections process could help voting reach an unprecedented high.
Blockchain technology brings with it a sort of democratized authenticity. Instead of a single-source middleman trusted to verify a piece of data or dataset, a whole array of users work together to authenticate verification. The process itself is a failsafe against corruption, protecting against influence by any imperfect transaction mediator while simultaneously ensuring the continued integrity of information down the road.
Citizens entrust the government with all sorts of sensitive information about themselves -- from Social Security numbers to tax and financial information. In addition, the government collects a seemingly endless stream of metadata, census data and other statistics in the interest of national security. This is all part of its mandate to govern -- but it comes with the tacit agreement of transparency when possible, confidentiality when appropriate, and security as a requirement.
As we head into the final months of 2018, trust in government is far from where it once was. The public’s confidence in government, especially when it comes to cybersecurity, public records and digital information management, could certainly use a boost. Enter blockchain.
In light of high-profile breaches and chronic mismanagement, integrating this new technology would demonstrate that government holds integrity as its highest priority and restore public confidence in agencies that control access to citizens’ sensitive information.
While the process promises to be slow, the future promises to be bright. Blockchain can be a powerful tool for the federal government if utilized thoughtfully. Use cases have already started to appear, and more are certainly on the horizon. By keeping an eye out for how this technology can be integrated, we have the opportunity to reinforce trust between citizens and federal agencies in a powerful and unprecedented way.
Pete Burke is the security practice team lead at Force 3.