UK Government Considers Adopting Blockchain Tech

The reports, published by two independent think tanks, could push the Government closer to distributed ledger tech.

Two recent reports have indicated that the UK Government is considering the use of distributed ledger technology (DLT) to deliver more and better quality public services.

The first report, titled ‘The Future of Public Service Identity’ was published by London-based think tank Reform, and advocates using blockchain tech to make digital identity programmes run more efficiently and safely.

According to Reform, the profiling model currently favoured by the Government is siloed, which leads to, “different, overlapping and sometimes contradictory,” ID profiles. This approach, according to Reform, can lead to confusion on behalf of both citizen and those attempting to access the database, and is also more ‘attractive’ to hackers.

The report cites the 2015 cyberattack on US Government databases, which resulted in the theft of personal information (including social security numbers and fingerprints) from over 19.7 million people. The report also notes that identity theft in the UK is at an all-time high, with almost 173,000 recorded cases in 2016.

The solution, according to Reform, is a ‘self-sovereign’ approach where users are given complete control of their public service identity, and can authorise who sees it, and in what form. This model is similar to that which currently exists in Estonia, where citizens are given a unique identifier – similar to a national insurance number – allowing them to access their records and allowing third parties access to them too.

But the report notes that this is a significant change away from the current approach: “This [new] model requires a radical shift in the role of government. Government would move from providing data storage to verifying identity. The citizen would no longer simply be a data subject but become the controller of their identity.

“In practice, an individual would have a set of two encrypted keys, one being completely private and the other public, allowing them to share information with public services. Taking the example of the passport, the individual would only use their public key when verifying their information with the Border Force.”

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The report adds: “Government would retain overall authority over the new identity management model through a so-called permissioned blockchain. It would own the network and would decide who else could access and join it.

“The decentralised nature of blockchain means that all departments on the network agree to ‘one version of the truth’ when information is added.”

A second report, this time issued by the House of Lords, also highlights the transformational impact that distributed ledger technology could have on public services.

Published by Conservative Peer Lord Christopher Holmes, it flags the wide array of areas that could be improved through DLT such as border control, criminal investigations, taxation, health assurance, food standards, cyber-security, cyber-fraud, and government procurement.

To assist in the system’s smooth delivery, Holmes also advocates the creation of a ‘neutral organisation’ that could work across these departments. A similar body exists in the Netherlands – Interim Rijk – and works across the department to provide objective policy, architectural and technological expertise for information management and project management.

The report also notes that DLT could help better-integrate emerging systems such as 5G, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and even nanotechnology, which may not gel as well with legacy systems currently in-place.

Holmes adds that the ongoing commercial interest in blockchain tech will ensure its development and advancement, saving the Government money in this regard. Holmes writes: “That commercial interest brings the skills and resources and the agile and innovative style best suited to the development of DLT as part of an increasingly interlocked and complementary constellation of operating systems and technologies.

“It also means that industry already has collaborative groups ready and keen to engage with the government’s digital leadership, user organisations and experts. The opportunity is for government to bring to bear its broad interests, leadership and expertise to stimulate and shape commercial development in the public interest.”

Holmes concludes: “With the right mix of leadership, collaboration and sound governance, DLT offers a step change for service delivery in both the public and private sectors.

“By reducing data fragmentation and enhancing traceability and accountability, DLT promises cost‐savings and efficiencies on a scale sufficient to impact national finances.”

In the past, government IT projects have been a byword for mismanagement, under delivery and missed opportunities. This has started to change with the advent of a new ‘digital first’ approach. The fundamental shift in focus offered by distributed ledger technologies demands a huge change in perception – and the way public data is organised. Only time will tell if these promising green shoots will lead to significant change.

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16th November 2018

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