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Is blockchain the key to trusting government with our data?


Following today’s release of  think tank Reform’s report: The Future of Public Service Identity, detailing the advantages of blockchain to public services, Reform researcher Maisie Borrows writes for Glint on how data technology could best be put to use for UK citizens

Blockchain has not yet reached its potential in public services. This is especially true for identity management. Whether applying for a benefit or filling in a tax return, identity is crucial for accessing public services. A person must be able to prove they are who they say they are, accurately and reliably. Government can wrongly deny someone access to service if they cannot provide proof of their identity. This is unfair to the citizen and contributes to inefficient identity management across the globe. One recent example is the Indian ‘Aadhaar’ identity card, which has been criticised for restricting hundreds of thousands of people from accessing services they are entitled to such as free school meals and pensions.

The common way to prove identity in the UK is through a paper-based, photographic document, such as a passport or driving license. This form of identity proof, however, is not secure. Documents are prone to loss or theft, and this can lead to identity fraud which is now an endemic problem. Clearly, the way government stores identity data could be made more secure, as state databases create a “single-point of failure” whereby all identity information stored in that database can be stolen if a criminal can hack into it.

It is little wonder that public trust in government data management is low, with 46% of the population not trusting government with their data in some instances. Indeed, one recent survey revealed that the second most popular reason for why people do not trust government with their data is because government are perceived as not good at keeping data safe and secure.

A further frustration for citizens is the inconvenience in inefficiency. Government databases hold fragments of a person’s identity with no single mechanism to access or update information about an individual. As a result, different government agencies request the same information from citizens multiple times, without the means to cross-check data already received. The independent think tank Reform analysed 25 identity authentication forms including passport applications, tax credit applications and job seekers’ allowance and found that three quarters of forms requested National Insurance numbers and 68% requested bank details. This wastes time for citizens and the probability for error increases.

A Reform report published today argues that blockchain technology is a solution to these identity management challenges. Blockchain technology can be thought of as a chain of computers, which store the same data across multiple encrypted databases. It’s inherent source diversity is its strength because it can create a secure public service identity, protected and accessible, drastically improving the experience of verifying identity to access a public service. In comparison to today, when an individual has multiple identity documents, this new model would enable an individual to hold their entire identity in one place.

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This one place would be their smartphone. Citizens would prove their identity via an identity app and would be able to consent to government sharing their data, for example with health services, with just one swipe. In practice, if a citizen wanted to travel through the UK border, they would receive a notification on their smartphone that the Border Force wanted to access their personal information. The citizen would then review this request and, if happy, grant the Border Force instant access to the necessary pieces of information in compliance with the data minimisation principles of data protection regulation.

A blockchain network would be built across several government department databases. In contrast to well-known permissionless blockchain networks, such as Bitcoin, this model would use a permissioned network meaning government would have authority over the system. Government would own the network and would decide who else could access and join it. Given the sensitive nature of public service identity, this would be the most suitable design.

Government would codify the rules of the blockchain network into smart contracts. Smart contracts would not only ensure government departments are compliant with data protections but also allow government databases to be accurate and up-to-date. This would be transformative, allowing departments to hold the “one-version of the truth” of a citizen’s identity across all public services. Zero-knowledge proof algorithms could be added to smart contracts and would allow more control over personal data. For example, these zero-knowledge algorithms would allow a citizen to confirm that they have a UK address without having to give over full address details.

As mentioned earlier, trust is at a premium when it comes to government handling of data. Giving choice over how much data to share could be a powerful tool to improve public trust in government. Critically, this would mean the relationship between the citizen and the state would radically change: The citizen would become the controller of their identity and government the verifier. This proposed model is largely aligned to the evolving trend in data protection legislation, in which control of personal data is moving to rest with the individual. Increasing control of personal data empowers citizens to hold government to account for how their data is used to improve public services.

Government must prioritise resolving the current identity management challenges given how vital identity is for accessing public services. Blockchain technology is an enabler to a better identity model, fit for the future. A single public service identity, underpinned by blockchain, would mean a far more efficient, secure and fairer system for everyone.

Maisie Borrows is a researcher at the independent think tank Reform.

A pdf of The future of public service identity: blockchain can be found here

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