Government applications of blockchain technology: voting, healthcare and border control

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Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

By Aliza Berger

WASHINGTON – In the past ten years, Bitcoin has gained tremendous popularity. However, beyond the world of cryptocurrencies is an untapped market for Bitcoin’s underlying technology the blockchain. Essentially a decentralized, public ledger that can be viewed whenever and wherever to display an updated record of all transactions, blockchain offers increased transparency to a wide range of industries and sectors. Using examples from West Virginia, Estonia and Canada, this article will consider the benefits of three potential government blockchain-based applications: voting, healthcare and border control.

From the voters’ perspective, there are three main benefits derived from blockchain-based voting. Voters can look to blockchain to verify that their vote was recorded, they can vote from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection and their vote cannot be miscounted or misunderstood by an elected official, since blockchain eliminates the possibility of double counting. On May 8, 2018, West Virginia held the first blockchain-supported state election, allowing a select group to cast their votes on a mobile blockchain-based platform. Authorized by Secretary of State Mac Warner, the group of voters consisted of deployed military members, their spouses and dependents. The pilot was deemed a success, and Secretary Warner recently approached counties throughout the state to gauge their interest in participating in the next round of testing for the application in November. While nationwide blockchain-based voting solutions have yet to be implemented, Australia and many other nations are currently experimenting with blockchain-based online voting platforms. In the near future, these solutions will complement, rather than substitute, existing electoral systems.

In Estonia, every citizen that has visited a doctor has been given a unique e-Health record that can be tracked online. This digital system integrates data from across Estonia’s healthcare providers to create a common record. Acknowledging the system’s susceptibility to attacks, the government began investigating technical solutions. In 2016, the Estonian e-Health Foundation announced an initiative that would use blockchain technology to secure the health records of over a million citizens. With a digital ledger to record and track patient medical data, administrators are now able to see a violation or breach of the stored data in real-time and can act immediately to minimize the damage. This example illustrates the risk mitigation afforded by blockchain, but moreover, Estonian officials believe blockchain’s transparent properties will deter electronic intruders from ever tampering with files and medical data in the first place. Blockchain technology cannot be the panacea for data standardization or system integration challenges. Instead, the technology offers a distributive framework to help integrate healthcare information across a network of users and stakeholders. As a result, blockchain applications in healthcare can improve system efficiencies and support patient care.

Threatened by the global refugee situation and risks of violence, many governments have tightened border controls. Blockchain’s traceable properties are relevant for supply chain management as well as the movement of people. The Canadian government, the World Economic Forum and other global partners have created a blockchain-based solution for securing borders. The Known Traveler Digital Identity system allows travelers to digitize their personal information and share it with airports and government authorities prior to traveling.

Certain participants would be given access to specific nodes to control and validate activity on the blockchain. Travelers would then verify their digital identity by adding attestations to their records, such as licenses, medical records, birth certificates, educational degrees and other documents.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Small Business Innovation Research grants would be awarded to develop a use case for blockchain technology’s role in border security. Blockchain-based solutions can improve the government’s existing border risk assessments. This technology could increase efficiency and speed, thereby empowering authorities to concentrate their time and efforts on high-risk travelers, goods and threats.

“Blockchain” is no longer a term exclusive to Bitcoin or other virtual currencies. Blockchain-based solutions offer ample benefits to federal agencies hoping to increase transparency, traceability and legal and financial accountability. It also streamlines bureaucratic processes to boost efficiency and productivity. However, similar to any new technology, many barriers and disadvantages still remain: initial IT expenses, overpromising technical capabilities, overcoming public sector scrutiny and reluctance and ability to integrate into existing systems.

It will take years for many of these pilot programs to be adopted into large-scale, nationwide applications. In practice, blockchain solutions will most likely be an added capacity to a government’s existing toolbelt. If integrated properly with existing systems, these solutions have the capacity to better government responsibility and activity, as observed in the cases of restoring electoral integrity, improving border conditions and supporting patient care. According to Dr. Carlos Santiso, former chief innovator for the Inter-American Development Bank, In a world scarred by recurrent corruption scandals…blockchain can make a critical contribution by strengthening public integrity and restoring trust in government. The time to experiment is now.”