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US Department of Homeland Security enlists blockchain to fight cybercrime

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program is designed to give the federal agency access to innovations from startups who need to remain startups.

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is joining the quest to find use cases for blockchain technology. The distributed ledger technology that is used to maintain Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies has a variety of potential uses that are still being explored. Given that blockchain tech is designed to create and maintain immutable records upon which all parties can rely and to dispense with the need for a shared, trusted entity to conduct transactions, blockchain is likely to have many potential security applications.

One channel used by DHS to gain access to new and cutting edge technologies is to work with small startups through the Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP). Based in Silicon Valley, SVIP now issues regular open calls for funding to commercial development by a “subset” of “non-traditional government contractors” that have less than 200 employees and have not been parties to any “Federal Acquisition Regulation based contracts and/or federally awarded grants totaling more than $1,000,000 in the past 12 months.” This funding is awarded to both U.S. and international companies in four phases lasting up to 24 months. Maximum non-dilutive funding is $800,000 for zero equity.

DHS and the blockchain

The Innovation Program’s latest open call is for technology solutions used for “Preventing Forgery & Counterfeiting of Certificates and Licenses.” It includes the brief argument that “from a government perspective,” blockchain and related distributed ledger tech “holds the potential for enhanced transparency and auditing of public service operations, greater visibility into multi-party business operations, and automation of paper-based processes to improve delivery of services to organizations and citizens.” In short, blockchain technology is understood to have many potential uses for everyday government operations.

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The open call focuses on the security of digital documents including anti-fraud and anti-forgery measures. Use cases are relevant to partner agencies U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration. This is the first call from SVIP specifically supporting USCIS use cases.

DHS has shown interest in blockchain tech in the past. The first open call to include blockchain-related projects by DHS came in 2015 in a larger call through its Small Business Innovation Research program, “Applicability of Blockchain Technology to Privacy Respecting Identity Management” and “Blockchain Applications for Homeland Security Analytics.”

blockchain

Identity documents come in many forms. (Source)

An information page about blockchain currently notes its usefulness in sharing digital credentials and reducing fraud. It also pointed to a variety of possible benefits:

– “No central authority needed to reconcile the ledger.”

– “Parties in the transaction do not have to trust each other.”

– “Immutability of records after reconciliation.”

SVIP recently awarded funding to a blockchain-related project intended to help secure IoT data. Currently, DHA also has a pre-solicitation through its Small Business Innovation Research program related to cryptocurrency. It is interested in forensic analysis on privacy coins such as monero when it is used in criminal transactions.

Blockchain and identity documents

In this new call for blockchain solutions to securely maintain digital certificates and licenses, specific use cases include:

– Identity documents for travel including tribal identity.

– Identity documents of organizational delegates.

– Verification of citizenship and employment authorization.

– Origin and cross-border tracking of oil and raw materials.

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As SVIP Technical Director Anil John notes, understanding how blockchain and distributed ledger tech can support digital versions of “paper-based credentials…[is] critical to preventing their loss, destruction, forgery and counterfeiting.” Such credentials go beyond personal ids to include “entitlements, licenses and certifications for a variety of purposes including travel, citizenship, employment eligibility, immigration status and supply chain security.” Obviously, concerns about credentials go far beyond needs that can be met by a handful of tech startups.

Seeking startup perspective

Companies like IBM are already deep into work related to digital identification and certification and have years of experience working at the massive scale of the Federal government. Such companies will play other roles in government efforts to employ blockchain tech for privacy and security. In discussing this open call, SVIP Managing Director Melissa Oh explains, “SVIP is a bridge between the early-stage startup community and the Homeland Security Enterprise…[which needs] the innovations coming from this community to ensure we are at least a step ahead of national security threats.”

This need to stay ahead leads to more cutting edge startups who may want to address national security issues but prefer the working environment of entrepreneurial ventures. By reaching out to such entrepreneurs, or states, “we are asking the innovation community to contribute to this work through the application of commercial solutions to homeland security use-cases.” SVIP allows DHS to access innovators who are in high demand in a commercial environment by offering one of the rarest finds in Silicon Valley, equity-free funding.

Anthony Donaghue is a science and technology buff. He is currently staying in Tokyo, keeping abreast of the latest tech developments in various sectors. On that end, he's also knowledgeable about startups, as it is closely intertwined with tech.

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