There’s so much more to blockchain than cryptocurrency. In fact, governments, corporations, and everyday citizens around the world are only just beginning to understand its capacity to change entire industries for the better. Blockchain’s implications for Australia’s government and our public services are extraordinary. But let’s first consider how the technology works and why it exists.
You can think of blockchain in utopian terms. It has a radical capacity for complete data security and transparency, potentially tracking many different kinds of transactions. It captures transactions and encrypts them, creating multiple copies that are stored in multiple access points (or blocks) along (you guessed it) a chain.
Let’s say someone illegitimate tries to access one of these copies. The system will detect the hack automatically because there’s a sudden discrepancy between the data they’re accessing and the other identical copies it’s synced to. So the system automatically shuts down the compromised entry point and eliminates the intruder. You need only consider security compromises that seem to make daily news across the world to see the implications of implementing blockchain technology to store precious citizen data.
Beyond this, of course, lies a more philosophical victory — this new, decentralised way of storing information is not only incredibly secure, but also opens the door for better distribution of power. It hints at the possibility of a new world order where money and data are controlled by people rather than powerful singular entities like banks. Information can be stored and accessed by any number of users, rather than being owned by one, potentially corrupt, entity with a vested interest in it. Consider the recent data breach involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica— it’s a classic example of how a massive deposit of data was stored centrally and exploited.
Simply put, blockchain is the internet we’ve been waiting for. So how can we take advantage of it in Australia in a way that improves democracy, public services and the use of taxpayers money?
Public services already using blockchain
Much of the public sector has been slow to fully embrace digital technologies due to its complexity and security risks, which are really valid concerns. For example, while we ostensibly have the technology to conduct entire federal elections online, we continue to use paper ballots for a reason — all those easily manipulated digital votes would be a honeypot for hackers.
But blockchain offers a new, immutable method of digital record keeping. It is highly likely this is the solution governments have been waiting for in order to fully embrace going digital. There are lots of great examples around the world of blockchain being trialled in partnership between startups and governments. The implications of these trials on public services is a serious game changer. Here are just a few of them:
Elections: The election process, let’s face it, does not reflect the way we live. That is to say, in a world where we can check our bank balance, purchase a birthday present online and send it overseas, sign a contract, all while sitting at a cafe eating brunch. Yet citizens who are eligible to vote are required to spend entire Saturdays travelling to polling centres, lining up for potentially hours then filling out pieces of paper by hand to vote for an election candidate. So many steps in that process leave room for user error and become automatically void if a simple mistake is made. Meanwhile, electoral officers are under incredible pressure to make sure voters are counted both incredibly quickly and precisely.
Clearly a digitised voting system would make life easier for everyone. Not to mention the potential for a more participatory democracy overall, where citizens can vote on any manner of local issues as simple as swiping left or right like you do on dating apps. There’s potential to make participating in democracy as accessible as it is to find a date. People often comment on the political apathy of the younger generation, but there’s something to be said for the archaic processes making it unattractive and difficult to engage with.
Australian-born blockchain startup Horizon State is leading the way in this field, with partnerships including United Nations Intergovernmental Organisation to help enhance global standards for justice through stamping out electoral corruption. Not to mention that traditional methods of voting cost taxpayers upwards of $7 per vote to facilitate — and $25 in some cases. Horizon State’s blockchain voting solution is clocking in at under $0.50.
Horizon State is leveraging the latest breakthroughs in cryptographic and distributed systems to protect the record of results on the blockchain. Not owned by any individual or institution, blockchain’s transparency and inherent resistance to tampering makes digital voting viable for governments.
Identity management: Think of all your different usernames and official identifications online and offline (Passport, medicare, drivers license, bank logins, email and social media logins) and the pain of remembering and keeping them updated. What if there was one version of you instead? An ultra-secure digital passport, virtually impenetrable to fraud, that you could use to enter or login anywhere.
SelfKey is one example that shows the potential for blockchain technology to help with all this. Instead of giving out personal information to organisations and trusting it’s kept safe and used appropriately (remember all those data breaches I mentioned earlier?) it allows individuals to retain ownership of their digital identity. The data and documents sits with the person on their device, rather than on a server or in the blockchain, and the user shares their identity documents with verified notaries via blockchain technology. Rather than handing over identification documents, the information stays with the owner and they choose when it’s accessed. The potential for this to solve problems with citizen identification management, a problem that has plagued governments for centuries, is huge. Think about how that would impact on countries that experience natural disasters or citizens who flee due to conflict — they could easily recoup their identities via a blockchain-based application.
Healthcare: Through the safe storage and transfer of information, blockchain could have a significant impact on the healthcare industry. It could enable easily accessible electronic medical records, promote integrity along pharmaceutical supply chains through immutable records of a product’s origins, make Medicare claims much easier and quicker, and reduce the number of times people need to repeat themselves to health professionals. Even more broadly, medical researchers would be able to easily share and access results from trials and studies conducted all over the world to accelerate new discoveries without the risk of personal identities revealed thanks to blockchain’s inbuilt encryption protocols.
For example, in Estonia, a country recognised as a global leader when it comes to digitising citizen data for the past two decades, has more than a million healthcare records using blockchain. Once you add an artificial intelligence layer to these records, the possibilities get even more exciting. AIDOC is one impressive project, with a highly regarded partner that’s utilising AI for super doctor-like capabilities. Think of it like this —a decentralised network and database that no one owns or can hack which contains millions upon millions of medical data. An AI, which is more intelligent and powerful than a million human brains sits on top of the network and processes all the data to gather new medical insights quicker than we can blink our eyes. It can also take data you provide regarding a pre-existing health issue or as a general checkup and give you personalised recommendations. It also knows not only about your medical history, but that of your families. Therefore, it can predict and prevent you from experiencing hereditary medical issues.
Land registry, title and ownership: Contracts back and forth between multiple parties, revision after revision. Paperwork you need to print, sign, scan, email, repeat. It’s an expensive and complex process. Imagine the impact a blockchain-powered online ledger that records these transactions in real time with complete transparency and reliable security could have. There would be no need for buyers to fork out for costly middlemen (like real estate agents, banks and solicitors.). A lot of the middlemen in these transactions exist to legitimise and verify the transactions taking place.
With blockchain, property purchasing would become a far less painful and more straightforward experience — even comparable to other kinds of shopping. Such systems are currently being trialled in the US state of Vermont, as well as Sweden and Brazil. Propy, a marketplace to buy and sell homes all over the world have a functioning site that the new crypto rich are using to convert their Bitcoin into bricks and mortar.
Don’t wait, it’s coming, ready or not.
You’ve probably been talking about blockchain already, if only because you regret not bothering to mine or buy Bitcoin back in the day. Yet this is still only the start. Blockchain is still an emerging technology, but that’s all the more reason to start exploring and taking advantage of its potential right away. It’s certainly taken me many rounds of conversations with friends and experts to get my head around it. A number of US states, as well as countries like the United Arab Emirates and Estonia, are already experimenting with its capacity to transform voting, banking, healthcare, and business services. Why shouldn’t Australia also lead the way?
Like most good ideas, they start with informal conversations in informal settings. Grab a chair, grab a bite and grab a peer for chat.
This article was originally published under How Blockchain Could Improve Australian Public Services on Medium.