Jumping on the blockchain bandwagon

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This could be the year when blockchain hype dissipates and it becomes a major, if still early-stage, cybersecurity tool.

It’s always a bit of a push and an invitation to hype to declare “the year of” anything.  That being said, 2017 could well be the year blockchain takes off.  

Given that the cryptographic ledger technology behind the Bitcoin digital currency already has been widely touted as a new way of solving a multitude of cybersecurity issues, one could say blockchain has already been hyped. But it’s also gained firm adherents in some areas of government.

The Department of Health and Human Services is certainly one supporter. Last year HHS issued a series of public challenges for ideas about how blockchain could be used to address privacy, security and scalability challenges in managing electronic health records. It announced the 15 winners in September, with several chosen for presentations at the Office of National Coordinator for Health IT’s Blockchain & Healthcare Workshop.

It will consolidate that interest next month when the HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology sponsors the Blockchain in Healthcare Code-A-Thon, apparently the first-ever blockchain hackathon hosted by a government entity. The Washington, D.C.-based Chamber of Digital Commerce will be a co-host, and results of the hackathon will be announced at its March 14-15 D.C. Blockchain Summit.

The fact that HHS has put its name behind a cybersecurity hackathon, where contestants compete to produce real and actual solutions to problems, indicates a real intent to deploy. HHS here is signaling its intention to go ahead and use blockchain for its needs.

Other government agencies have also realized the importance of blockchain technology. The U.S. Postal Service, for one, believes blockchain could disrupt many of the industries it services, and so is worthy of closer study. The technology also seen as potentially having a major transformative impact on cities.

IBM surveyed some 200 government organizations around the world about blockchain and found fully nine in 10 plan to invest in blockchain technology for projects such as financial transaction, asset and contract  management. Around 14 percent -- a group IBM labels as the trailblazers in this area -- plan to have blockchain in production and “at scale” in 2017.

“These findings reveal that blockchain adoption is accelerating faster than originally anticipated,” the IBM report said, “with government executives identifying key areas and benefits to explore.”

Blockchain might be ramping up quickly, but there are still plenty of people on the sidelines, at least according to a Deloitte Consulting survey that found that around 40 percent of those industry executives it questioned still have little or no knowledge of blockchain. Of those that do, however, more than a quarter list it as one of their top five priorities for 2017, and over half believe they’ll be less competitive if they don’t adopt the technology.

Another mark of how far blockchain fever has spread comes in an article by the World Economic Forum explaining what blockchain is, its history and how it might be of advantage to the Forum’s global business, government and industry audience. The WEF believes blockchain could be the technology that “helps globalization work for everybody.” In January this year, it formally announced the formation of its Global Futures Council on Blockchain.

So activities galore, but does this translate into a real interest to adopt and exploit blockchain for real-world security problems?

It’s not a silver bullet by any means. For one thing, there are still many questions about the security of blockchains themselves, at least as they are now being used. But the technology offers too tempting an answer for a range of pressing problems for it to be held back very long, as the Department of Homeland Security indicated last year in a solicitation for the use of blockchain in identity management solutions.

So, while calling 2017 “the year of blockchain” might be pushing it, this seems to be the year when blockchain hype dissipates and it becomes a major, if still early-stage, cybersecurity tool.

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