US Department of Homeland Security Talks Blockchain R&D

Pete Rizzo
Jul 10, 2016 at 17:08 UTC
Updated Jul 11, 2016 at 15:11 UTC
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DHS, homeland security

The science and technology division of the US government department created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is increasingly taking an interest in blockchain technology.

First revealed in a December call for research, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced this June that it had awarded a $199,000 grant to blockchain startup Factom that finds the startup researching how the emerging technology could be used to ensure the security of cameras meant to monitor US borders.

But while that project is specifically focused on Internet of Things and data security, DHS data privacy program manager Anil John emphasized that the agency has a larger, more exploratory interest in learning more about both the strengths and potential weaknesses of blockchain technology.

John, whose division issued the call for applications under the DHS’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, pointed to the growing interest in blockchain more broadly as a reason the DHS has been compelled to invest.

John told CoinDesk:

“For DHS use cases, the projects we’re funding are focused on proving or disproving that security and privacy can be supported by a blockchain-based infrastructure. It is much broader than IoT and identity.”

In addition to Factom, projects like Solarity Solutions, Respect Network and Digital Bazaar have received funding to explore concepts related to proving the DHS’s hypotheses. As such, John’s part of the agency is not alone in supporting this exploration.

Also looking into the technology is the department’s Silicon Valley Office, which has developed an innovation program that seeks to engage startups on homeland security challenges.

Managing director Melissa Ho said that her group, in contrast to the data privacy program, is focused on improving authentication, a goal that led to its partnership with Factom.

“We thought it was a novel approach,” Ho said. “Seeing that the company had existing commercial customers, we thought this would be a good opportunity.”

Other areas of investment unrelated to blockchain, Ho said, have recently included projects focused on equipping canine units with wearables and open-sourcing aspects of the DHS’s travel restrictions system. She used these examples as a way to showcase the broader fact-finding the agency is conducting on ideas with the private sector.

Device identity

While both Ho and John voiced an interest in the technology and its capabilities, they each sought to stress that it remains early in the DHS’s exploration of the technology.

As a result, they sought to indicate that the DHS is starting small with blockchain by testing hypotheses based on what has been popularized about its capabilities.

In the case of Factom, John said that blockchain could play a role in helping the DHS build an “identity” for machines and devices, which he framed as a way to extend the agency’s monitoring services as more devices become connected in the coming years.

“The Factom piece is more along the line of these devices exist, but how do we build a picture of the identity of this device over time? The blockchain could be the catalyst that allow us to document the changes,” he said.

Other projects, he said, will be encouraged similarly, with the agency building on its year-and-a-half fact-finding by engaging more with outside stakeholders.

“We discovered that in order to get to that point, there are some fundamental pieces that need to be proven out. We identified what those are and looked to put out a call for proposals,” he said.

Open technologies

Yet another question discussed was whether the DHS sees any particular value in closed, permissioned blockchains or open, public blockchains given that institutions seem increasingly apt to favor experimentation with the former.

Notably, John said that from the DHS’s perspective, it is “irrelevant” which type of blockchain technology is used, and that each is likely to be beneficial for certain purposes.

In regards to public blockchains, John outlined a scenario whereby the DHS could theoretically maintain an open-access system that stores the credentials of first responders or doctors during emergencies.

In this case, John said that DHS does not maintain that information, but that it would be beneficial if it was available in a “decentralized ledger at the state and local level”.

John said:

“We are interested in both, but in order to get to that point, we need to know the security and privacy aspects are proven.”

Next steps

Still, John said the agency’s activities are not limited to investing.

For example, he mentioned that the DHS is involved in work being conducted by web standards body W3C, which is considering blockchain amid a wider bid to streamline online payments.

John stressed that the DHS remains “cautious” about its interest in the technology, emphasizing that he wants his agency to study the technology in a “rational” manner that strives to determine fundamentals, such as security.

However, John said the DHS will seek to engage the wider blockchain community alongside such efforts, concluding:

“We’re interested in hearing from the community and getting insight into what the state of the art is and what the art of the possible.”

Image credit: Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock.com

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