Explained: How governments can build better services with blockchain

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Blockchain is enabling digital diplomas and smart contracts for land and property transactions.

From Estonia to Switzerland, agencies are trying out blockchain to speed up services, take away paper-intensive processes and simplify complex transactions for citizens.

But as with all tech, security questions remain. We speak to experts in government, private sector and academia on the possibilities of blockchain-enabled services, and how to keep them secure.

Blockchain in education

Singapore is using blockchain to create secure digital diplomas and academic certificates, says Steven Koh, Director of Government Digital Services at the GovTech Agency. Starting this year, all secondary and tertiary institutions will begin issuing these digital certificates.

OpenCerts, announced in early May, allows educational institutes to “issue tamper-proof digital academic certificates that can be verified against fingerprints on a public blockchain”, Koh explains. Employers will able to quickly and easily verify these digital certificates when graduates apply for jobs, instead of requesting for physical copies. It cuts administrative work, while at the same time assuring authenticity.

The platform was jointly developed by SkillsFuture Singapore, GovTech, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and the Ministry of Education, and represents the first time that blockchain is being used on a national level. Agencies could also use this method to authenticate other important documents, such as marriage, birth or death certificates, bills of lading and more, Koh added.

But since information on the blockchain is publicly accessible, it is not ideal for storing data, encrypted or not. “Anyone can read content off it easily,” he explains. GovTech only stores the unique identifiers for datasets on the public blockchain, he says.

Meanwhile, Dubai is using blockchain to support executive education as industries evolve. The Smart Dubai agency recently developed a blockchain-enabled Smart City University, an online learning platform for anyone to learn about the impact of technology. Students can shape their own courses and choose non-traditional learning methods.

Blockchain in real estate

Another “tangible” use case for blockchain in government is for real estate transactions, says Associate Professor Keith Carter, Co-Director of the CRYSTAL Centre at the NUS School of Computing. “Things where you're transferring money in exchange for a home, that is always attached to that person, it's a transaction that you never want to go away,” Carter says.

The blockchain ensures that information cannot be tampered with, making it ideal for the sale of properties via smart contracts. And the Singapore government already has legislation for digital signatures, so the sale would not require a handwritten one, Carter continues. “There is a ledger that all parties can see - the buyer, seller, and bank.” The final step is when the Singapore Land Authority gets an update on the new homeownership.

But this approach only works if the “chain of custody of data” is secure, he explains. Blockchain can provide a unique way to show if unencrypted information left its sender and reached its recipient without being tampered with along the way. “You can imagine that if a nefarious actor were able to intercept slightly change the message, especially at a high speed of communication, they could impact what is going to happen.”

Some countries have already begun trials for blockchain-enabled land registries. Sweden’s land ownership authority conducted its first property transaction on the blockchain last year after two years of testing. And the New South Wales Land Registry Services recently developed a blockchain proof-of-concept to replace its largely paper-based property purchasing process.

What are the risks?

The blockchain itself can be extremely secure - as long as governments protect access to it, notes Jeffrey Kok, VP of Solutions Engineering, APJ at CyberArk.

Each record in a blockchain is secured cryptographically, so it is crucial to give the cryptographic keys the highest level of security control, he explains. “The cryptographic keys and its applications are practically the keys to the kingdom,” Kok says.

This is where privileged access management comes into play. “Key to this is the protection of who gets to ‘write’ to the ledger; ensuring the wrong people cannot get to the transactions and cause problems,” he explains.

Kok recommends that governments keen to use blockchain “must first get on top of their access controls, or risk endangering the integrity of the core processes they are seeking to evolve”. At the same time, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, he notes.

There is a tendency for organisations to try to use blockchain to solve all sorts of problems, from food safety to malware protection, Kok believes. In practice, the blockchain works best for very specific uses that involve public or distributed ledgers - for instance, stock trades or in votes.

The bottom line is that the blockchain is just like the multiplication button on a calculator, Kok concludes. You need to keep the calculator somewhere safe that only you can access, instead of trying to keep the actual calculation secure.

This article was produced in partnership with CyberArk.