Blockchain In: Politics
Politics isn’t generally seen as the realm of the honest and upstanding, even though we want our public servants to be just that. Unfortunately most of us know the reality of the situation, that people lie – especially so when they’re motivated by the twin demons of power and wealth. This is where blockchain comes in, and thankfully, the main benefit that blockchain has to offer politics comes in the form of transparency.
Voting – Fraud-Free Elections
Modern voting systems quite simply can’t be trusted – for multiple reasons. Paper-based systems, as could be seen in Russia earlier this year, can be easily tampered with under the right conditions – in the case of Russia, ruling party-affiliated employees simply stuffed the ballot box with fake votes – and electronic systems living on a centralised database are susceptible to breaches.
In 2016, Jeanette Manfra, the cybersecurity head at the Department of Homeland Security and the top official in charge of protecting the US voting system from hacks, claimed that Russia had actually managed to penetrate voting systems in a small number of states, though she couldn’t go into detail on whether or not anything was altered due to it being classified information. If a country like the US – an apparent powerhouse of technological superiority – can have their voting systems penetrated, then what chance is there that the rest of the world can rely on traditional methods to run a fair election process, free of external – or internal – interference?
One crypto project, Horizon State, is being built with the intention of creating a system free of voter fraud and manipulation, as well as helping bring more people into the loop when it comes to voting. Votes should be safe on the blockchain, as long as the systems in place are secure – blockchain comes with its own potentials for misuse – and if the government in power isn’t also the party in full control of the blockchain itself. This could lead to the government carrying out a so-called “51% attack” on the blockchain, which would allow them to rewrite the chain as they desire. However, a 51% is likely to be detected by honest members of the community, and this kind of issue may lead to serious reputational damage to the culprits. Instead, the running of the chain could be split equally between parties but also largely distributed to unbiased groups.
Voter apathy is also a very real issue, with global average voter turnout decreasing from nearly 80% to around 65% over the last 50 years, with only 55.7% of the US population casting their vote during the 2016 Presidential Elections. A multitude of factors, including time pressures and a feeling of powerlessness in being able to change the political system all contribute to this. Presumably, having the ability for all voters to securely vote from the comfort of their phones would lead to an increase in voting, as even the most disillusioned voters can set a few minutes aside while sitting at home or in the office. A system like this could lead to dramatically increased turnout as well as a generally higher political engagement across society – something we are sorely missing in many nations across the globe. Of course, these kind of systems would already be possible, but with traditional systems the aforementioned danger of data breaches remains.
Document Storage – Land Registry, Hospital Records, And More
Land titles are important to be held securely, as they are essentially the proof of someone owning particular land or property – a potentially costly issue to have to deal with in case of a dispute or complete loss of proof. Storing land titles in the traditional sense can fall prey to the same issues as we laid out above, namely the risk of a centralised database being at risk of breaches, and paper archives being forgeable and able to be destroyed or entirely lost (Brazil is currently facing such issues as unscrupulous land speculators and agriculture companies attempt to steal land from rural communities with fraudulent documents). A blockchain solution eliminates these issues once again, with its immutability characteristic ensuring data can’t be changed, and its decentralisation taking care of the issue of having a central point of attack.
The Republic of Georgia, that small nation in the Caucasus, is the first country to employ a blockchain solution when it comes to storing land titles. The National Agency of Public Registry (NAPR) in Georgia – using the Exonum blockchain framework – has created a system by which citizens can create a digital certificate of their assets. Not only is it safer, but also much faster, taking the time for a request to be fulfilled from up to 3 days down to mere seconds – saving the government up to 90% of the costs previously associated with the management of these kind of documents.
Additionally, as added security, the whole Georgian blockchain is frequently backed up to the bitcoin blockchain – an attempt to nullify the problems associated with private blockchains vs public systems like the bitcoin network itself. (In summary, private blockchains are generally faster, but have less decentralisation and therefore can be weaker in terms of security – public systems have stronger security but issues with scaling and speed.)
The NAPR also says that the same technology is to be implemented in all government registries in Georgia, and that the system is to be expanded in the future to include smart contracts, to enable the sale of property or transferring ownership, among other possibilities.
Ever wondered, while standing in a 1 hour queue in a tax office, or for any Americans reading, the DMV, exactly why am I here right now? You’re not the only one, and in truth it’s an issue stemming from a lack of governmental action when it comes to replacing outdated systems with forward-thinking technological processes. For example, the US tax situation is known to be a complex matter for all who have to endure it, with people sometimes taking time off work to complete their tax forms, or hiring expensive outside help; in reality, the government already has all the necessary information on working citizens and could quite easily complete and file all tax information on their behalf, with people simply receiving their tax rebate, or being informed that they owe money (unfortunately this mainly boils down to politicians being in the pocket of wealthy corporations who create tax software – also known as lobbying).
If we fly over to Europe, specifically Estonia, all taxes can be done online in an estimated 3 minutes. They aren’t done via the blockchain, but it’s a simple demonstration of the power that technology can bring to government matters, and how far ahead certain countries are when it comes to employing modern technology in ways that actually tangibly better the lives of their citizens. Estonia also has some interesting governmental blockchain applications in place. Firstly, national health, judicial, or legislative records are taken from a multitude of sources, and a blockchain is used to verify the integrity of the files, as well as system access logs, to prevent any foul play. In fact, the way that they describe their use of blockchain is that it acts as a “digital defence dust” against tampering. This means that the data itself resides on traditional databases, but the blockchain verifies that none of the data has been changed since the last time it was interacted with – bringing the benefits of blockchain technology to a more traditional infrastructure setup.
Hopefully governments around the globe will watch and learn from the Georgian and Estonian examples. Technological innovation like this is in the interest of citizens, as well as saving the government itself both time and money.
ID systems somewhat tie into the previous two examples, and are something we will likely cover in a separate article at some point, but we can get the basics out of the way here. At any one time we tend to carry at least one, and possibly numerous, identity documents, such as national IDs, passports, driving licenses, or military IDs, as well as possessing other forms of ID such as birth certificates or social security cards. This traditional system of having to own a multitude of IDs comes with significant drawbacks; we have to carry them, we can lose them, and they can be altered, lost, or faked.
In addition to these issues of simple ease of use, not having access to an ID can also pose itself as a fundamental blockade to services in poorer regions of the world, with up to 1.1 billion people estimated to be “invisible” to their governments, and therefore finding it much harder or being completely unable to gain access to services such as healthcare, education, or finance. With an ID system on the blockchain, citizens could potentially have an ID created for them at birth, which could store their biometric data such as their fingerprints or retinal scans; this would rectify the issue of a lack of ID, as the identity of each citizen would be provable and secured safely on the blockchain.
An ID system which citizens can access instantly and which securely stores all of their IDs at once would be quite an improvement to say the least – especially one which could wrap all IDs effectively into a singular entity which can be accepted in all situations and by all services.
Additionally, these IDs could be so-called “self sovereign” IDs – only made available to third parties under the express authorisation of the ID holder (for example, via an app), making identity theft far more difficult, and much easier to track. To keep it short, Decentralized Identifiers (DiDs) are like secret URLs on the blockchain; you could have one DiD for your name, another for your address, social security, and so on. When you sign up for a service, you can grant them access to the specific DiDs they require (or revoke such access). This also makes your life easier in the long run, as you will only have to update your DiDs to update every single third party who uses your data – saving you time and preventing misinformation from spreading.
Civic is a crypto project which is aiming to solve the ID problem by giving everyone their own blockchain ID “wallet”, via which they can already log into a select few websites (such as WikiHow), and which intends to encompass and be available to governments and all manner of companies. Users actually store their own data locally on their own device, instead of trusting a database with it, giving themselves full control over how their private data and identity is handled. When they verify or log into a certain site or service, they are prompted that specific elements of their data will be shared, and they can decided to agree or deny, as can be seen below.
If proven to be a usable solution to the identity problem, governments could themselves integrate with the Civic platform, or more likely develop their own similar solutions which follow a similar path.
We’re all well aware of politicians who have taken full advantage of their positions of power for their own gain, rather than the good of the citizens they are supposed to represent.
The UK expenses scandal of 2009 became a symbol of the utter greed that some politicians embodied. For example, MP Sir Peter Viggers dipped into his governmental expenses account (intended for work-related costs) to spend £1,645 ($2,210) on a duck house for his home – he later resigned as a result of these investigations. Former Agriculture Secretary, Douglas Hogg, submitted a £2,200 ($3,000) claim for the cleaning of the moat around his home – which he was thankfully later forced to repay – as well as costs for the professional tuning of his piano and a full-time housekeeper and her car upkeep costs. The ridiculousness of these claims is only slightly overshadowed by the fact that a system this rife with abuse could even be possible in the first place. Unfortunately, in other countries these sorts of financial abuses by politicians go far further than what happened in the UK – the Bygmalion Affair in France, for example, led to €10 million in fake invoices being created during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign of 2012, to attempt to cover up vast campaign overspending. Had all of these campaign expenses been kept on-chain, these kind of issues may not even have arisen in the first place.
Blockchain technology would force politicians to be entirely transparent in their spending habits, at least when it comes to their spending in their official capacity. Any official expenses accounts could be run through the blockchain and immediately made public, without the ability for expenses to be hidden or changed, so that future ambitions for a new speaker system or dog kennel could be kept at bay or taken care of with their private salaries.
Our politicians make a multitude of choices throughout their time in office. When it comes to the citizens of a given society actually being able to track how their politicians have voted, some options do exist, but the information is rather fragmented and one-sided, in the sense that citizens can’t directly give feedback as to how they feel about the decision in question. Of course, people can protest and call their representatives, but why doesn’t a solution exist whereby we can immediately and publicly demonstrate to our politicians how we feel about their choices, on the record? Likely because allowing their citizenry to easily and directly voice their displeasure at certain choices doesn’t benefit politicians personally. Of course we have social networks where we can make our voices heard, but we have seen with the last US election that they are heavily manipulated in terms of “fake news” and other false information, and opinions are rather shouted into the void and get lost amongst the noise of everything else.
NextElection is working on a system whereby the official choices made by politicians and parties in general are tracked, and people can give their reactions to them. Currently it is only available in Beta and showing a very barebones representation of Indian politics, but they plan to roll it out to the US and UK at some point soon, and add more features as they go. It gives a meter of the current mood of the public on certain issues and people, as well as keeping track of other events that may be associated with a politician, such as criminal charges and validated news.
A system like this could be further improved by bringing official votes completely onto the blockchain. These votes would automatically be registered on the official profile of the politician in question, potentially notifying any interested citizens, who could give their own responses to the politician in question. This would increase political accountability, as politicians couldn’t be so sure that their votes are largely ignored, as well as likely increasing the interest of citizens in politics, as it reduces the barriers to receiving information and giving their own opinion on the situation.
The issue with keeping this kind of sensitive information on a blockchain is security. People like to throw around the idea that a blockchain system is impenetrable and infinitely harder to attack than a traditional database. In theory, a well-implemented blockchain does make it a lot harder for the information to be wrongly acquired, but only then – if it is well-implemented. In practise, blockchain security can be a concept that is quite hard to define, as this MIT Technology Review article makes clear. The infrastructure of the blockchain isn’t necessarily the easiest point of failure (as, if well-implemented, this should be much harder than a traditional database), but smart contracts are seen as a major worry – as the DAO hack demonstrated. Thankfully, there are promising projects such as Quantstamp that are working on verifying and securing smart contracts before they have the potential to do any damage.
The above examples are in line with what is already functioning on the blockchain or at least planned, but there are likely many more potential ideas. We’re still quite far off these ideas being fully implemented into the fabric of our politics, but it’s hard to argue that many of them would lead to substantial improvements, as well as being simple quality of life improvements for the participants in these systems.
It’s time for modern governments to be just that – modern. Existing systems are groaning under the weight of their antiquity, but hopefully some of the leading countries in these fields can inspire other nations to do similarly great things with blockchain technology.