If you’ve heard of blockchain, you probably think it has something to do with bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies: something for tech wizards only, and certainly nothing to do with public infrastructure. However, blockchain can be an important piece of a layered security approach that organizations should consider to help protect critical data.
While blockchain was indeed invented around 2008 as part of bitcoin development, blockchain is its own technology, a cryptographic system of ledgers with huge potential to keep data safe—whether that’s banking information, government records, healthcare information, or the kind of data that public agencies and utilities want to store and preserve. And it’s likely to gain broad application across a wide variety of sectors in the coming years. Transportation, water and other public infrastructure realms will soon be using blockchain and related technologies to keep data reliable and secure.
How does blockchain work? Several different servers keep parallel databases over a peer-to-peer network. Envision this as the same set of books or ledgers being held in multiple secure vaults, each guarded by a very particular accountant. This network of records serves to protect the integrity of the data.
Anytime one server records a change to one of those databases, that change must be added to the end of the “chain” or the other servers will catch it and reject the change. (Imagine one of our meticulous accountants getting a call asking for an unacceptable change to their books, hanging up in disgust and blocking the number.) This distributed ledger system prevents records from being altered or tampered with by an unauthorized entity, providing redundancy and adding a layer of security. If one server is compromised, it is unable to infect the other sources, and instead is taken offline by the rest of the blockchain.
Blockchain in Action
Imagine how blockchain could be deployed in a community. It’s not far-fetched! A community might have a server at City Hall, one at the high school, one at the library and so on.
Those servers would provide data integrity for all the community’s most vital information: deeds and titles, birth and death records, voting records and more.
If one server is compromised and starts trying to change the data, the other servers ostracize it and won’t share information anymore. Intrusions are unable to affect key data and records.
If this sounds like science fiction, you might be surprised to know that the country of Estonia is already using blockchain for all its public records. As part of the nation’s “e-Estonia” philosophy of digitizing many aspects of public life—all citizens carry digital IDs—Estonia needed to have a safe, secure method of protecting its public records from hackers, data corruption and other threats. Distributed encryption through blockchain is making that possible.
What’s next for blockchain in public infrastructure? One of the most intriguing possibilities is for transportation. One day soon, all tolling transactions may be maintained through the blockchain. On a tolled highway like the Massachusetts Turnpike, over 100,000 financial transactions happen every day. With the rise of autonomous and connected vehicles, the potential for e-commerce will only increase. Keeping those transactions safe and secure could mean tapping into the power of a distributed ledger system. And, rapid, secure transactions between autonomous and connected vehicles could lead to incredible advancements.
“Imagine variable tolling at the microlevel of an individual car,” suggested the National League of Cities in a 2018 report. “If you are in a rush, your car could negotiate with vehicles around you for right-of-way at a preset premium. Drivers that are in less of a hurry would move out of the way automatically and be compensated for increasing their travel time. Blockchain would allow for car owners to negotiate rates and exchange money in real-time with no middle man or transaction costs. Additionally, paying for traditional tolls or even fuel — whether gas or electric — could be just as seamless.”
Of course, there’s a great deal of work to be done to make this possible. Technology needs to advance to bring these dreams to reality. Blockchain may not be suitable for all applications and environments and should be part of an overall layered security approach. Regulation and legislation needs to be developed to facilitate these advancements while also protecting equity for all citizens. And, consumers would need to show a willingness to embrace these technologies on a day-to-day level, beyond the early adopters now investing in cryptocurrencies. But, with technology advancing at an ever-more-rapid pace, infrastructure decisionmakers should be considering the possibilities now to prepare for a more connected, more secure future.