If you own a nice piece of ocean-front property, and I decide I would like that piece of property, and my cousin works in the land registry where we both live, I don’t need to buy the property from you to have it for my weekend parties. I can contact my cousin and ask him to transfer the record over to me.
Yes, that would be illegal, but in some developing countries, I might get away with it. With the application of a bribe here and there, it’s easy for me to change a public record, and hard for you, as the property owner, to rectify the situation. It’s basically your word against the public record, which you have no means of controlling. It happens all the time, according to corruption experts.
It’s this sort of problem that blockchain technology could help with, and, in fact, it’s already happening. The Republic of Georgia (the country) has put almost 200,000 public land titles on a system that combines a tamper-proof private blockchain with a public blockchain viewable by anybody. The registry is thought to be one of the first times a government has used the decentralized network underlying bitcoin–a blockchain–for a public service purpose.
“It allow citizens of Georgia to validate the integrity of their record and have that record recorded publicly,” says Tomicah Tillemann, cofounder of the Blockchain Trust Accelerator, which helped to develop the project.
Until 2014, Tillemann worked as a State Department advisor on civil society and democracy-boosting technology. He helped set up a peer-to-peer network for democracies in transition, and, as revealed by one of the Clinton email leaks, he once went 100 hours without sleep as he finished a speech for Secretary Clinton about internet freedom.
Tillemann believes blockchain could play a big role in improving trust in government, improving bureaucratic efficiency, and maintaining integrity of public data, from vote counts to land registry titles. (We discussed several other social impact applications for blockchains here).
“The critical challenge facing society right now is the breakdown in trust in institutions,” he tells Fast Company. “Blockchain was designed from the ground up to address that, creating systems that are highly secure, highly transparent and resistant to corruption.”
Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer showed how far public faith in institutions has fallen. In half the 28 countries surveyed, governments were the least trusted institutions; 14 countries showed falling trust levels from the year before.
Blockchains are decentralized ledgers with no singular control. They’re made up of “blocks” of data–say, transactions of bitcoin currency–stored simultaneously across computers making up a network. They create inviolable records that can only be amended under strict conditions and by the consent of network members. Thus, they’re very hard to corrupt. Before my cousin could sign over that beachfront property (bless him), he would need to amend the records on all the computers making up the blockchain (as well as the blocks in the chain that refer back to your block)–which is thought to be impossible.
Blockchains have been described as the “internet’s missing trust layer” or “trust machines.” Their ability to record and verify transactions across distances and between people who don’t know each other could have wide applications and ramifications. Blockchains could, for example, be used to transact electrons across electricity grids, reducing the need for utilities to orchestrate the flow. Or they might enable international money transfers without hefty fees. Or they might be used to share cars without the need for Uber or Turo.
Georgia’s need for more trustworthy public records dates back to the chaotic post-Soviet period when officials were accused of changing them at will. Today the country has a reputation for administrative transparency–at least compared to its neighbors–and Tillemann says it’s keen to maintain that reputation by adopting new approaches. The land registry project started as a pilot before being approved for full implementation. And the government is considering putting other registries and notary services on blockchains.
Another of the accelerator’s projects involves TechSoup, a network linking up hundreds of international nonprofits with technology tools. In March, it announced it was creating a blockchain-based registry allowing NGOs to identify themselves and validate key information in countries where non-profits are under government scrutiny or attack.
Tillemann says his work at the State Department was often stymied by basic technology deficits. “Even when [foreign] leaders had committed to doing the right thing, their underlying systems were broken,” he says. “There was so much potential for waste, fraud and corruption and it was very difficult to get the type of change citizens were looking for. All of this led us to an analysis of blockchain.”
The accelerator was founded by the National Democratic Institute, a non-profit that spreads democracy around the world, BitFury, a commercial blockchain service firm, and the New America Foundation. It aims to bring together technologists, funders, non-profits, and the public sector. Tillemann says it’s currently evaluating 25 projects across voting integrity, aid dispersal, and government efficiency, and is set to make some new funding announcements soon.
For-profit applications of blockchain are now receiving billions in funding, notably financial services. Tillemann calls that good validation for technology, but he thinks it would be a shame if only bankers got to enjoy the benefits. “We realized that billions are going into fintech, but some of the most compelling uses are around social impact and governance and addressing the needs of citizens,” he says.
Correction: This article formerly stated that the Blockchain Trust Accelerator was part of the Bretton Woods II initiative. That is not the case. We regret the error.