It’s not just for financial institutions; government agencies can use this digital ledger technology to protect trusted records and simplify interactions with citizens.
An important function of government is to maintain trusted information about individuals, organizations, assets, and activities. Local, regional, and national agencies are charged with maintaining records that include, for instance, birth and death dates or information about marital status, business licensing, property transfers, or criminal activity. Managing and using these data can be complicated, even for advanced governments. Some records exist only in paper form, and if changes need to be made in official registries, citizens often must appear in person to do so. Individual agencies tend to build their own silos of data and information-management protocols, which preclude other parts of the government from using them. And, of course, these data must be protected against unauthorized access or manipulation, with no room for error.
Blockchain technology could simplify the management of trusted information, making it easier for government agencies to access and use critical public-sector data while maintaining the security of this information. A blockchain is an encoded digital ledger that is stored on multiple computers in a public or private network. It comprises data records, or “blocks.” Once these blocks are collected in a chain, they cannot be changed or deleted by a single actor; instead, they are verified and managed using automation and shared governance protocols.
So far, banks, payment-service providers, and insurance companies have shown the highest level of interest and investment in blockchain.1But we believe government agencies have just as much to gain from experimenting with this technology and deploying it strategically through pilot projects. Over time, blockchain can help agencies digitize existing records and manage them within a secure infrastructure, allowing agencies to make some of these records “smart.” IT departments in government agencies may be able to create rules and algorithms, for instance, that allow data in a blockchain to be automatically shared with third parties once predefined conditions are met. In the longer term, the technology may even allow individuals and organizations to gain direct control over all the information the government keeps about them. This level of transparency could, in turn, make it easier for agencies to achieve buy-in for the creation of networked public services.2
Finding advantages in blockchain
There are a number of blockchain tools and technologies that government agencies can implement today to protect critical data and improve the management of records associated with property ownership and incorporation. In the long term, as blockchain matures, governments may also use it to enable networked public services.
Managing data and digital assets
Protection of critical data. Anyone who uses public services is rightly worried that, despite agencies’ best efforts to protect their systems, criminals might gain access to government databases and steal or manipulate records.
In 2015, for instance, hackers obtained personal details, Social Security numbers, fingerprints, employment history, and financial information for about 20 million individuals who had been subject to a background check by the US government. Encryption methods can never be 100 percent safe, but blockchain technology can make similar breaches a great deal more difficult to achieve.
The nation of Estonia, for example, is rolling out a technology called Keyless Signature Infrastructure (KSI) to safeguard all public-sector data. KSI creates hash values, which uniquely represent large amounts of data as much smaller numeric values. The hash values can be used to identify records but cannot be used to reconstruct the information in the file itself. The hash values are stored in a blockchain and distributed across a private network of government computers. Whenever an underlying file changes, a new hash value is appended to the chain, and this information can no longer be changed. The history of each record is fully transparent, and unauthorized tampering from within or without the system can be detected and prevented. KSI allows government officials to monitor changes within various databases—who changes a record, what changes are implemented, and when they are made. The electronic health records of all Estonian citizens are managed using KSI technology, and the country is planning to make KSI available to all government agencies and private-sector companies in the country.