Members of the U.S. House of Representatives got a crash course on blockchain today, with subcommittees of the Science, Space and Technology Committee meeting to hear testimony on the tech.
During the “Beyond Bitcoin: Emerging Applications for Blockchain Technology” hearing, the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology and the Subcommittee on Oversight asked a range of questions, primarily aimed at getting a sense of which use cases have attracted the most attention today – and could, in theory, wind up being used by the U.S. government itself.
Ultimately, the witnesses would recommend that Congress set up a legal framework which would encourage and, perhaps, even fund research into uses of the technology within the public sphere.
“I would encourage Congress to commission a blockchain advisory group,” said Aaron Wright, an associate clinical professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and co-director of its Blockchain Project.
He later elaborated:
“So the idea with the blockchain commission would be to provide a degree of uniformity and a unified approach to the numerous regulatory decisions. Some issues raised by the witnesses today – there’s privacy issue, identity issues, consumer protection, commodities laws, and there’s competing interpretations that have been issued already by federal agencies, so the thought would be to standardize that.”
Applications, not regulations
The hearing pointedly sought to avoid a topic that has been a hot one, both in and outside of Washington, D.C.: regulation. While it was a subject that came up through witness testimony, chair Ralph Abraham (R-LA) said he wanted to focus on what he described as a potentially “transformative” technology.
To that end, the hearing called for examples of how the technology can be used, both in the private sector and by the federal government.
Representative Barbara Comstock (R.-VA) started listing use cases by noting that her personal information was likely stolen or compromised by a data breach at the Office of Personnel Management. As a result, she said she was “pleased” to hear about efforts to create more secure identity management platforms that uses blockchain as a means to encrypt data.
One notable topic of exploration came through Chris Jaikaran, a cybersecurity analyst from the Congressional Research Office, who discussed the tech’s use for underpinning voting systems.
“The blockchain doesn’t record the vote, it records the person, the identity, the voting. The vote itself is stored on another secure system,” he explained.
Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety, Walmart Inc., detailed his company’s work with blockchain to the subcommittee members, explaining how the retail giant is using the tech to track food shipments.
Yiannas spoke on the pilot projects the retail giant had concluded already, explaining that blockchain has already seen success in helping track food supply chains.
“In 2017, Walmart and IBM decided to trial a blockchain to track mangos from source to store … at the end of the trial, we proved we could cut down the time to trace food from seven days to 2.2 seconds. That’s food traceability at the speed of thought.”
While committee members seemed enthused on the idea of private-sector blockchains helping businesses solve problems, they shared concerns about using similar platforms to share government-related information. Representatives Clay Higgins (R-LA) and Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) in particular asked for clarification on how distributed ledgers would be secured from potential attackers.
Charles Romine, director of the Information Technology Lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), noted that 51 percent attacks and compromised computers could both disrupt a blockchain, but that these types of attacks would be less dangerous for large – and therefore powerful – networks.
One particular area that was honed in on is quantum computing, which some have warned could undermine the security of blockchain systems.
These concerns are being considered but are at least 15 to 30 years away from becoming a reality, Romine explained.
“If there is a concerted effort to develop quantum computing, I believe we have a number of years before it reaches maturity – what we refer to as being cryptographically relevant.”
As with any hearing before Congress, the natural question becomes: what comes next?
Prior to the hearing, aides to the committee downplayed the prospects of immediate action, though they floated the idea that the testimony on Wednesday could form the basis of work toward some kind of legislation around blockchain.
IBM’s Jerry Cuomo prepared a list of potential actions Congress could take in order to provide more support for blockchain research. First and foremost, he recommended that the government should encourage projects which can directly impact the U.S.
Cuomo argued in favor of a “thoughtful” approach to legislation.
“Perhaps most importantly, [Congress should] recognize the difference between blockchain’s use in new forms of currency from broader uses of blockchain when considering regulatory policy. Carefully evaluate policies established regarding cryptocurrencies to ensure that there will not be unintended consequences that stymie the innovation and development surrounding blockchain.”
Ultimately, it’s tough to say whether Congress will move on such legislation anytime soon – especially considering the current political climate in the U.S. today – but the process likely moved one step closer through today’s testimony.
Panel image via YouTube