Blockchain for government: A first survey

29 Jul 2019

My paper titled “Blockchain in the Government Technology Fabric”, presented at the IIAS-Lien 2019 conference (Science, Technology and Innovation Policies track), contains a survey on the use of blockchain technologies as part of digital government initiatives. Digital government encompasses functionalities and services delivered by both governmental agencies as well as non-governmental private entities in sectors which are typically considered to be under government responsibility, e.g., public transportation, health care, financial institutions to mention a few. 

 

Blockchains used in and popularized by cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are authenticated data structures maintained in a decentralized manner, which are supposed to provide certain guarantees, specifically: the past records ought to be tamper-proof (immutable), and hence, blockchains are append-only data structures. Since multiple parties may try to append new information to a blockchain at any given point of time, this may lead to conflicting changes. Thus, blockchains also need to provide a guarantee of eventual consistency. Informally, the former (i.e., immutability) is achieved by involving many participants in a peer-to-peer network, who all replicate the information, and hence, a minority of these replicators cannot change the view of the past at their discretion. The latter (eventual consistency) is achieved through the use of a consensus algorithm among the information replicators.

 

The notion of blockchains is however not a monolith. The choices of what constitute a legitimate set of replicas that arbitrate the correct view of the history and whether this membership is controlled in any fashion (and the consequent choices of which consensus mechanism is used or even usable among them, and what dis/incentive mechanisms facilitate the process), along with who all may have access to the content of the blockchain, all together determine diverse renditions of these distributed data structures, which are broadly classified across two dimensions: permissionless versus permissioned, and public versus private.

 

These design choices have a profound impact on the security guarantees that can be expected inherently from the specific instantiation of a blockchain. In fact, permissioned and private blockchains, while efficient to deploy, and effective for internal audit amongst the participants, are not intrinsically amenable for audit by third parties/public. In the article, we discuss the strengths and benefits but also the limitations, as well as some practical workarounds when they exist. The article then puts the use cases of governmental applications deployed over blockchains in context of these strengths and limitations of blockchain technologies, as well as technological alternatives.

 

At an abstract level, we identify the following broad classes of applications of blockchain in digital government applications: (i) notary and registration services, (ii) digital certificates and records systems, (iii) mechanisms for supporting digital sovereign currencies, or broader supports of financial services using distributed ledger technologies, (iv) (sovereign) digital identity infrastructure, (v) blockchain as a multi-purpose platform and (vi) a data marketplace.

 

In the paper we survey representative examples from real world deployments, proof of concept pilot projects, as well as aspirational white papers from different government agencies spanning across the globe to provide an early glimpse of the state of the blockchain usage for managing the affairs of a state.

 

Anwitaman Datta, School of Computer Science and Engineering, NTU Singapore

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