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Let's get GDS to build a public blockchain, UK.gov's top boffin says

No, really. That's exactly what his latest report argues

The British government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, has done a Dilbert and declared that the UK needs a blockchain.

In an 88-page report (PDF) published today, Sir Mark explained how a distributed ledger could transform governance in the United Kingdom, and even suggested that the Government Digital Service take the lead on developing it.

Sir Mark, who is a scientist rather than a computing science boffin, reported that a blockchain/distributed ledger could "help governments to collect taxes, deliver benefits, issue passports, record land registries, assure the supply chain of goods and generally ensure the integrity of government records and services."

A distributed ledger is a database which is replicated across a network where amendments are made entirely transparently and authenticated through cryptographic protocols.

The technology was first unveiled in 2008, on the cryptography mailing list at metzdowd.com, by someone calling themselves Satoshi Nakamoto.

The paper shared with the list was titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System (PDF) and proposed a means of preventing double-spending within a peer-to-peer electronic cash system by timestamping transactions and hashing them into an ongoing chain of hash-based proof-of-work, which cannot be amended with redoing that proof-of-work.

This chain of record came to be known as the blockchain. It was a ledger distributed in a "permissionless" fashion, Sir Mark noted, "so that anyone can add a block of transactions if they can solve a new cryptographic puzzle to add each new block." The integrity of each addition is established through consensus on the chain.

Not every distributed ledger would necessarily be "permissionless", the report argued. "Permissioned" ledgers would utilise a limited consensus process to check the integrity of the chain - in the government's blockchain this would likely be government departments. It would also be much faster than an "unpermissioned" ledger.

"Existing methods of data management, especially of personal data, typically involve large legacy IT systems located within a single institution," stated the report, noting that a convoluted array of networking and messaging systems add cost and complexity to the government's efforts.

Sir Mark argued that "distributed ledger technology provides the framework for government to reduce fraud, corruption, error and the cost of paper-intensive processes. It has the potential to redefine the relationship between government and the citizen in terms of data sharing, transparency and trust." ®

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