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Congressional lawmakers Feb. 14 weighed whether and how blockchain might be used to boost government cybersecurity, amid worries about potential threats to the still-developing technology.
Blockchains are digital ledger systems that function as shared, transparent databases allowing parties to conduct transactions without the need for third-party audits. The technology, which underlays cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, has drawn major private sector investment in recent months because of its potential to secure and streamline transactions and record-keeping.
Representatives from IBM Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other organizations testified at a House Science, Space and Technology Committee joint subcommittee hearing about ways blockchain might be used to create more secure data storage systems.
Republicans and Democrats alike said they’re interested in the potential of blockchain to prevent major data breaches, such as those experienced in recent years by Equifax Inc. and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Proponents of the technology tout that its inherent transparency and auditability bolster its security barriers.
“Bolstering the cybersecurity of federal information systems is among the committee’s top priorities, and I am hopeful that our efforts here today will take us one step closer toward accomplishing this objective,” Ralph Abraham (R-La.), chairman of the panel’s Oversight Subcommittee, said.
Still, lawmakers and panelists were quick to point out vulnerabilities in the technology, such as whether it can withstand still-developing but powerful quantum computing that is expected to nullify current encryption abilities.
The U.S. State Department, Department of Homeland Security and Postal Service are among over a dozen state and federal agencies developing or studying blockchain for use in operations, such as issuing government forms of identity, storing medical records and streamlining property transfers.
Blockchain technology can bolster data security in several ways, panelists said. Blockchain transactions are stored in an unchangeable record, and efforts to alter that record would be detectable by parties involved.
Trying to tamper with a transaction would require a majority of the parties on the chain to collude, which is extremely difficult on networks that include thousands of users, Charles H. Romine, director of the Information Technology Laboratory at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), said.
Blockchains are also decentralized, so data is distributed across users and not stored in single repository, which are like honey pots for hackers to try to steal, panelists said.
“It’s harder to compromise an end-user computer than a data repository like Equifax,” Aaron Wright, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law and chairman of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance legal industry working group, told Bloomberg Law.
Several lawmakers expressed concerns that the technology faces its own set of security threats, and might not be ready for widespread government use.
Lawmakers pointed to quantum computers, powerful machines being developed by China, the U.S. and other countries that are powerful enough to break the cryptographic protocols that keep data and transactions on blockchains from being stolen or copied.
“This could immediately have national security implications,” Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), said.
Romine told lawmakers the risk is real, although it may be 15 to 30 years before someone could use a quantum computer to hack a blockchain. NIST began research several years ago to develop new technologies to replace current security methods. The agency launched a competition to develop post-quantum cryptographic systems in 2017.
“We’re leading the world in the development of quantum resistant cryptography as a result of this global competition that we launched,” Romine said.
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