“I think the applications are almost limitless.”
So said Douglas Maughan – who serves as the Science and Technology Directorate’s cybersecurity division director, a group within the Department of Homeland Security – before two Congressional subcommittees on Tuesday. Maughan’s remarks came during a wider discussion on the application of blockchain to supply chains, joining a panel of witnesses that included Maersk head of global trade digitization Michael White, UPS vice president of global customs brokerage staff Chris Rubio and Nuby Law IPR counsel Robert Chiaviello.
Announced last week, the “Leveraging Blockchain Technology to Improve Supply Chain Management and Combat Counterfeit Goods” hearing is the second such event hosted by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Oversight and Research and Technology subcommittees this year.
As expected, the session was largely educational in nature. But even still, as articulated by Maughn, such discussions can have a significant impact on the work being done by U.S. agencies on the blockchain front.
According to Maughn, the Science and Technology Directorate “must aggressively work with its research, development, test and evaluation partners throughout government and industry so Homeland Security applications of blockchain and distributed ledger technology are effective and trusted.”
Indeed, in his “limitless” remark, Maughan suggested that the scale of work was spread throughout the U.S. government.
“I think the applications are almost limitless and it’s up to the departments or agencies as to how to address that,” he told the subcommittees, later noting that not every potential use case requires a blockchain.
‘There must be a better way’
White, appearing on behalf of shipping giant Maersk, framed the firm’s move toward applications of blockchain as a way to break up the iceberg-like state of shipping today.
He began by describing how the shipping industry works at present, noting in particular that “the industry operates much as it does or has since the introduction of shipping containers in the 1950s.”
Transactions are filed through fax machines and documents about shipments are sent by way of carrier mail – and can sometimes arrive too late, he said, adding:
“Container shipments can also be delayed because essential paperwork has not caught up with the goods they are carrying. Everyone agrees that there must be a better way but no single participant can effect change … in 2016 Maersk and IBM began a collaboration with the goal of digitizing supply chain.”
That collaboration utilized a blockchain to create an immutable, but efficient record, he said.
UPS’s Rubio expanded on this concept, noting that “by having the ability to track any product from the beginning of its journey through the supply chain, blockchain may provide a solution to unknown or unverified product origins.”
“In fact, we are already seeing this tech used to track origins of various products,” he went on to say.
When asked how exactly blockchain can help the shipping industry, White remarked that “blockchain is especially suitable for that because you can enable the parties which have a right to see and have access to information and see that information has not been tampered with or modified in any way, shape or form.”
“By posting information in real time to the supply chain data can be shared and that can streamline the flow of goods. The benefit to the consumer is they can receive their product sooner,” Rubio asserted.
What the members said
Though the session largely saw the witnesses sharing their views and input on blockchain, the hearing did present some opportunities for subcommittee members to offer a window into their thinking on the technology.
At the outset, Rep. Ralph Abraham – who chaired the hearing – positioned the event as one that would look at both private and public-sector use.
“We recognize [blockchain] technologies can benefit both the public and private sectors, and seek to understand just how,” he told attendees.
As might be expected, the subject of cryptocurrencies crept into the hearing, with one lawmaker suggesting that those present ought to look into “the technology beneath it.”
“If we can overlook the stigma of cryptocurrency and look at the technology beneath it I think we can see [useful applications],” Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia remarked at one point.
Rep. Don Bayer of Virginia declared that, in his view, the U.S. ought to play a major role in advancing the tech more broadly.
“I believe America should take the lead in blockchain research,” he said.
Capitol Hill image via Shutterstock