How can Blockchain redefine the relationship between the UK government and citizens?

Blockchain is fast becoming the buzzword of 2016 – and we are only in the first month of the year! Conversations are stretching far and beyond its use in Bitcoin as many industries are starting to realise just how revolutionary the technology behind the cryptocurrency could be, from the world of identity to the public sector.

Just last week, the UK government was urged to consider adopting blockchain, with the government’s chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport who argued that using the technology could “redefine the relationship between government and the citizen in terms of data sharing, transparency and trust.”

Before I explain why I agree entirely with Sir Walport’s claims, I firstly want to take a step back and explain what blockchain is. It is, essentially, very much like the traditional databases we use today, except it is far more secure and completely open source. There is the ability to make it completely decentralised which means no one ‘owns’ it. Any participant, across geographies and institutions, can collaboratively make changes to the ledger and these changes are reflected across all copies of the ledger in a matter of minutes.

This opens up a world of opportunities which have never been previously possible.

A trust-less society

At present, we, as citizens, have to put our trust in existing data management systems; trust that our information is correct, up to date and secure. In today’s digital threat landscape, it’s fair to say our levels of trust have been challenged given the numerous high profile hacks of last year which saw thousands of customers’ personal details leaked onto the Internet. With blockchain, however, it can be an enabler to putting the citizen in control of their identity for the very first time. We can do this by removing the central arbiter and with a decentralised alternative, we have the possibility to build a ‘trust-less’ eco-system where no one person or company can manipulate citizens identities either by accident or maliciously.

This opens up the potential to verify once and use many times just as the GOV.UK Verify scheme is doing right now. Identification verification services, such as CitizenSafe, provide a single sign-on service to government services such as the DVLA and HMRC, and whilst this doesn’t use blockchain today, it could well do in the future.

In the report, it is stated that distributed ledger technologies have “the potential to help governments to collect taxes, issue passports, assure the supply chain of goods and generally ensure the integrity of government records and services” among many other use cases. And it’s only when we start to build up this picture of the many opportunities blockchain offers that we can see how the technology can improve the current processes in place, both for the government and the citizen.

Let’s look at the NHS in particular. Blockchain has the potential to improve healthcare by improving and authenticating the delivery of services and by sharing records securely. In addition, the technology enables records to be accessed around the globe but as the information is encrypted, citizens are able to control access to personal records also know who has accessed them. This idea that identities cannot be tampered with also has benefits for those citizens claiming benefits. With blockchain, fraudulent errors in welfare support can be dramatically reduced because by confirming digital identities through distributed ledgers on encoded devices, the right citizens would receive the right benefits and identities would become much harder to forge.

Citizens in control

However, blockchain doesn’t just bolster security and minimise fraud, it also reduces costs of protecting citizens’ data while creating the possibility to share their data more easily, making arguably arduous tasks effortless. By creating a single digital identity on the blockchain, all citizens’ information and transactions are stored securely and this makes processes such as tax returns and renewing passports seamlessly simpler as people can request documents without having to type their details in time and time again; it’s just another ‘stamp’ on the blockchain.

But of course, with new technology comes fear, uncertainty and doubt, especially when individual identities are at the centre of that disruption. Many will worry that providing personal information into a single system where this data can be interoperable would bring to the fore a ‘Big Brother’ society. With blockchain, this isn’t the case at all. In fact, we would instead argue that blockchain actually enables an ‘anti-Big Brother’ society, as there is more data transparency and citizens are in control of their identity. It could move us a huge step forward into citizens not needing to give full identity information to every service, but just trusted attributes.

You cannot ignore the fact that interest in blockchain is buzzing right now. With so much noise around the technology, there can be no doubt that blockchain is going to make a significant impact in the all-too near future. Just by exploring the opportunities it opens up for the UK government, we can begin to see how revolutionary blockchain will be in changing our mind-set on how things are done in today’s society.

Blockchain offers a much more secure, more manageable alternative to the clunky, legacy databases that, in their current state, do not offer the service citizens demand today.

Gareth Stephens, Head of Proposition Development at GBG

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