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County tests blockchain for vital records

Riverside County, Calif., is testing a proof-of-concept that uses blockchain to securely share digital official and vital records.

Currently, the county’s process is paper-based: Someone requests the record and the Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder Office makes a physical copy that it delivers either via mail or in person to customers who come into the office.

For the past six months, the office has worked with Infosys Public Services on a solution that would allow for a fully digital process. Through the web, customers can select the records they need, authenticate themselves, pay for the copies and digitally receive them within minutes through a government portal.

“We’re trying to become much more of a customer-centric organization,” said Peter Aldana, the county’s assessor-county clerk-recorder. “We felt like blockchain might be able to help us in particular areas of our processes, one of those being obtaining official and vital records,” he said. “Allowing our customers and citizens to do that digitally vs. the time and effort needed to do that in paper form would save citizens a lot of time and effort, as well as our own department.”

A crucial part of the effort is ensuring that the record has not been changed at any point along its journey from creation to delivery to a requester. That’s where blockchain comes in. It is a decentralized system of record, or ledger, that cryptographically stores every transaction happening in the network. As a result, data is encoded with an alphanumeric code, or hash.

The best way to maintain security speed processing and maintain trust “is not to take the whole record and store it on the blockchain, but take the hash that identifies a particular vital record and put that on the blockchain ledger,” Infosys President and CEO Eric Paternoster said. “Every time that the agency issues one of the vital records, a digital twin of that record in the form of another hash is stored on the blockchain ledger. And then only if the citizen wishes to share the record, which can be done as a PDF of a copy that they already had, with another agency for verification, then the entity will upload that document through a portal and then that portal will create a hash. The two hashes will only match if the record hasn’t been tampered with.”

If anyone has altered the record since the hash was created, the record can’t be transferred and an investigation is triggered.

For the pilot, Infosys used Amazon Managed Blockchain, which allows for the creation and management of scalable blockchain networks using the open source Hyperledger Fabric blockchain framework. It also used other Amazon products: Cognito, AWS Lambda computing service, Application Load Balancer, Simple Storage Service, DynamoDB, Virtual Private Cloud and API Gateway.

“Really all that we needed technology-wise to do this was something the county already had, which was the ability to scan the vital records into a digital form. After that point, we could bring in [these] other technologies,” Paternoster said. The company created application programming interfaces between the existing county systems, the digital storage of the records, Hyperledger and the Amazon components.

With this blockchain solution, the county no longer has to print out records on expensive certificate paper and track and log the documents, Aldana said, adding that Riverside County currently stores about 250,000 boxes of physical records on paper at a cost of about $500,000 annually. “If we can get away from that, it’s obviously a time saver and a money saver,” he said.

What’s more, the digitization has the potential to improve security. “There’s always bad actors trying to fraudulently do things with official and vital records,” he said. “This technology might eliminate a lot of that.”

Aldana said he hopes to be able to push the technology live next summer. The first step toward that would be passage of state-level legislation now under consideration that would allow for fully digital official and vital records. After that, the county will go through the typical procurement process, starting with a request for proposals.

Customers won’t be required to get digital records, Aldana said. Paper will still be an option.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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