The GovLab Selected Readings on Blockchain Technology and Its Potential for Transforming Governance

By Prianka Srinivasan, Robert Montano, Andrew Young, and Stefaan G. Verhulst

As part of an ongoing effort to build a knowledge base for the field of opening governance by organizing and disseminating its learnings, the GovLab Selected Readings series provides an annotated and curated collection of recommended works on key opening governance topics. In this edition, we explore the literature on the Blockchain Technology.

To suggest additional readings on this or any other topic, please email biblio@thegovlab.org.

Introduction

In 2008, an unknown source calling itself Satoshi Nakamoto released a paper named Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System which introduced blockchain technology. Blockchain is a novel system that uses a distributed ledger to record transactions and ensure compliance. Blockchain technology relies on an ability to act as a vast, transparent, and secure public database.

It has since gained recognition as a tool to transform governance by creating a decentralized system to

  • manage and protect identity,
  • trace and track; and
  • incentivize smarter social and business contracts.

These applications cast blockchain as a tool to confront certain public problems in the digital age.

The readings below represent selected readings on the applications for governance. They have been categorized by theme – Governance Applications, Identity Protection and ManagementTracing and Tracking, and Smart Contracts.

Selected Reading List

Governance Applications

  • Atzori, Marcella – The Center for Blockchain Technologies (2015) Blockchain Technology and Decentralized Governance: Is the State Still Necessary?  Aims to investigate the political applications of blockchain, particularly in encouraging government decentralization by considering to what extent blockchain can be viewed as “hyper-political tools.” The paper suggests that the domination of private bodies in blockchain systems highlights the continued need for the State to remain as a central point of coordination.
  • Boucher, Philip. – European Parliamentary Research Service (2017) How blockchain technology could change our lives  This report commissioned by the European Parliamentary Research Service provides a deep introduction to blockchain theory and its applications to society and political systems, providing 2 page briefings on currencies, digital content, patents, e-voting, smart contracts, supply chains, and blockchain states.
  • Boucher, Philip. – Euroscientist (2017) Are Blockchain Applications Guided by Social Values?  This report by a policy analyst at the European Parliament’s Scientific foresight unit, evaluates the social and moral contours of blockchain technology, arguing that “all technologies have value and politics,” and blockchain is no exception. Calls for greater scrutiny on the possibility for blockchain to act as a truly distributed and transparent system without a “middleman.”
  • Cheng, Steve;  Daub, Matthew; Domeyer, Axel; and Lundqvist, Martin –McKinsey & Company (2017)  Using Blockchain to Improve Data Management in the Public SectorThis essay considers the potential uses of blockchain technology for the public sector to improve the security of sensitive information collected by governments and as a way to simplify communication with specialists.
  • De Filippi, Primavera; and Wright, Aaron –Paris University & Cordoza School of Law (2015)  Decentralized Blockchain Technology and the Rise of Lex Cryptographia – Looks at how to regulate blockchain technology, particularly given its implications on governance and society. Argues that a new legal framework needs to emerge to take into account the applications of self-executing blockchain technology.
  • Liebenau, Jonathan and Elaluf-Calderwood, Silvia Monica. – London School of Economics & Florida International University (2016) Blockchain Innovation Beyond Bitcoin and Banking. A paper that explores the potential of blockchain technology in financial services and in broader digital applications, considers regulatory possibility and frameworks, and highlights the innovative potential of blockchain.
  • Prpić, John – Lulea University of Technology (2017) Unpacking Blockchains – This short paper provides a brief introduction to the use of Blockchain outside monetary purposes, breaking down its function as a digital ledger and transaction platform.
  • Stark, Josh – Ledger Labs (2016) Making Sense of Blockchain Governance Applications This CoinDesk article discusses, in simple terms, how blockchain technology can be used to accomplish what is called “the three basic functions of governance.”
  • UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser (2016)  Distributed Ledger Technology: Beyond Blockchain – A report from the UK Government that investigates the use of blockchain’s “distributed leger” as a database for governments and other institutions to adopt.

Identity Protection and Management

  • Baars, D.S. – University of Twente (2016Towards Self-Sovereign Identity Using Blockchain Technology.  A study exploring self-sovereign identity – i.e. the ability of users to control their own digital identity – that led to the creation of a new architecture designed for users to manage their digital ID. Called the Decentralized Identity Management System, it is built on blockchain technology and is based on the concept of claim-based identity.
  • Burger, Eric and Sullivan, Clare Linda. – Georgetown University (2016) E-Residency and Blockchain. A case study focused on an Estonian commercial initiative that allows for citizens of any nation to become an “Estonian E-Resident.” This paper explores the legal, policy, and technical implications of the program and considers its impact on the way identity information is controlled and authenticated.
  • Nathan, Oz; Pentland, Alex ‘Sandy’; and Zyskind, Guy – Security and Privacy Workshops (2015) Decentralizing Privacy: Using Blockchain to Protect Personal Data Describes the potential of blockchain technology to create a decentralized personal data management system, making third-party personal data collection redundant.
  • De Filippi, Primavera – Paris University (2016) The Interplay Between Decentralization and Privacy: The Case of Blockchain Technologies  A journal entry that weighs the radical transparency of blockchain technology against privacy concerns for its users, finding that the apparent dichotomy is not as at conflict with itself as it may first appear.

Tracing and Tracking

  • Barnes, Andrew; Brake, Christopher; and Perry, Thomas – Plymouth University (2016) Digital Voting with the use of Blockchain Technology – A report investigating the potential of blockchain technology to overcome issues surrounding digital voting, from voter fraud, data security and defense against cyber attacks. Proposes a blockchain voting system that can safely and robustly manage these challenges for digital voting.
  • The Economist (2015), “Blockchains The Great Chain of Being Sure About Things.”  An exploratory article that explores the potential usefulness of a blockchain-based land registry in places like Honduras and Greece, transaction registries for trading stock, and the creation of smart contracts.
  • Lin, Wendy; McDonnell, Colin; and Yuan, Ben – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2015)  Blockchains and electronic health records. – Suggests the “durable transaction ledger” fundamental to blockchain has wide applicability in electronic medical record management. Also, evaluates some of the practical shortcomings in implementing the system across the US health industry.

Smart Contracts

  • Iansiti, Marco; and Lakhani, Karim R. – Harvard Business Review (2017) The Truth about Blockchain – A Harvard Business Review article exploring how blockchain technology can create secure and transparent digital contracts, and what effect this may have on the economy and businesses.
  • Levy, Karen E.C. – Engaging Science, Technology, and Society (2017) Book-Smart, Not Street-Smart: Blockchain-Based Smart Contracts and The Social Workings of Law. Article exploring the concept of blockchain-based “smart contracts” – contracts that securely automate and execute obligations without a centralized authority – and discusses the tension between law, social norms, and contracts with an eye toward social equality and fairness.

Annotated Selected Reading List

Cheng, Steve, Matthias Daub, Axel Domeyer, and Martin Lundqvist. “Using blockchain to improve data management in the public sector.” McKinsey & Company. Web. 03 Apr. 2017. http://bit.ly/2nWgomw

  • An essay arguing that blockchain is useful outside of financial institutions for government agencies, particularly those that store sensitive information such as birth and death dates or information about marital status, business licensing, property transfers, and criminal activity.
  • Blockchain technology would maintain the security of such sensitive information while also making it easier for agencies to use and access critical public-sector information.
  • Despite its potential, a significant drawback for use by government agencies is the speed with which blockchain has developed – there are no accepted standards for blockchain technologies or the networks that operate them; and because many providers are start-ups, agencies might struggle to find partners that will have lasting power. Additionally, government agencies will have to remain vigilant to ensure the security of data.
  • Although best practices will take some time to develop, this piece argues that the time is now for experimentation – and that governments would be wise to include blockchain in their strategies to learn what methods work best and uncover how to best unlock the potential of blockchain.

“The Great Chain of Being Sure About Things.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 31 Oct. 2015. Web. 03 Apr. 2017. http://econ.st/1M3kLnr

  • This is an exploratory article written in The Economist that examines the various potential uses of blockchain technology beyond its initial focus on bitcoin:
    • It highlights the potential of blockchain-based land registries as a way to curb human rights abuses and insecurity in much of the world (it specifically cites examples in Greece and Honduras);
    • It also highlights the relative security of blockchain while noting its openness;
    • It is useful as a primer for how blockchain functions as tool for a non-specialist;
    • Discusses “smart contracts” (about which we have linked more research above);
    • Analyzes potential risks;
    • And considers the potential future unlocked by blockchain
  • This article is particularly useful as a primer into the various capabilities and potential of blockchain for interested researchers who may not have a detailed knowledge of the technology or for those seeking for an introduction.

Iansiti, Marco and Lakhani, Karim R. “The Truth About Blockchain.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 17 Feb. 2017. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. http://bit.ly/2hqo3FU

  • This entry into the Harvard Business Review discusses blockchain’s ability to solve the gap between emerging technological progress and the outdated ways in which bureaucracies handle and record contracts and transactions.
  • Blockchain, the authors argue, allows us to imagine a world in which “contracts are embedded in digital code and stored in transparent, shared databases, where they are protected from deletion, tampering, and revision”, allowing for the removal of intermediaries and facilitating direct interactions between individuals and institutions.
  • The authors compare the emergence of blockchain to other technologies that have had transformative power, such as TCP/IP, and consider the speed with which they have proliferated and become mainstream.
    • They argue that like TCP/IP, blockchain is likely decades away from maximizing its potential and offer frameworks for the adoption of the technology involving both single-use, localization, substitution, and transformation.
    • Using these frameworks and comparisons, the authors present an investment strategy for those interested in blockchain.

IBM Global Business Services Public Sector Team. “Blockchain: The Chain of Trust and its Potential to Transform Healthcare – Our Point of View.” IBM. 2016. http://bit.ly/2oBJDLw

  • This enthusiastic business report from IBM suggests that blockchain technology can be adopted by the healthcare industry to “solve” challenges healthcare professionals face. This is primarily achieved by blockchain’s ability to streamline transactions by establishing trust, accountability, and transparency.
  • Structured around so-called “pain-points” in the healthcare industry, and how blockchain can confront them, the paper looks at 3 concepts and their application in the healthcare industry:
    • Bit-string cryptography: Improves privacy and security concerns in healthcare, by supporting data encryption and enforces complex data permission systems. This allows healthcare professionals to share data without risking the privacy of patients. It also streamlines data management systems, saving money and improving efficiency.
    • Transaction Validity: This feature promotes the use of electronic prescriptions by allowing transactional trust and authenticated data exchange. Abuse is reduced, and abusers are more easily identified.
    • Smart contracts: This streamlines the procurement and contracting qualms in healthcare by reducing intermediaries. Creates a more efficient and transparent healthcare system.
  • The paper goes on to signal the limitations of blockchain in certain use cases (particularly in low-value, high-volume transactions) but highlights 3 use cases where blockchain can help address a business problem in the healthcare industry.
  • Important to keep in mind that, since this paper is geared toward business applications of blockchain through the lens of IBM’s investments, the problems are drafted as business/transactional problems, where blockchain primarily improves efficiency than supporting patient outcomes.

Nathan, Oz; Pentland, Alex ‘Sandy’; and Zyskind, Guy “Decentralizing Privacy: Using Blockchain to Protect Personal Data” Security and Privacy Workshops (SPW). 2015. http://bit.ly/2nPo4r6

  • This technical paper suggests that anonymization and centralized systems can never provide complete security for personal data, and only blockchain technology, by creating a decentralized data management system, can overcome these privacy issues.
  • The authors identify 3 common privacy concerns that blockchain technology can address:
    • Data ownership: users want to own and control their personal data, and data management systems must acknowledge this.
    • Data transparency and auditability: users want to know what data is been collected and for what purpose.
    • Fine-grained access control: users want to be able to easily update and adapt their permission settings to control how and when third-party organizations access their data.
  • The authors propose their own system designed for mobile phones which integrates blockchain technology to store data in a reliable way. The entire system uses blockchain to store data, verify users through a digital signature when they want to access data, and creates a user interface that individuals  can access to view their personal data.
  • Though much of the body of this paper includes technical details on the setup of this blockchain data management system, it provides a strong case for how blockchain technology can be practically implemented to assuage privacy concerns among the public. The authors highlight that by using blockchain “laws and regulations could be programmed into the blockchain itself, so that they are enforced automatically.” They ultimately conclude that using blockchain in such a data protection system such as the one they propose is easier, safer, and more accountable.

Wright, Aaron, and Primavera De Filippi. “Decentralized blockchain technology and the rise of lex cryptographia.” 2015. Available at SSRN http://bit.ly/2oujvoG

  • This paper proposes that the emergence of blockchain technology, and its various applications (decentralized currencies, self-executing contracts, smart property etc.), will necessitate the creation of a new subset of laws, termed by the authors as “Lex Cryptographia.”
  • Considering the ability for blockchain to “cut out the middleman” there exist concrete challenges to law enforcement faced by the coming digital revolution brought by the technology. These encompass the very benefits of blockchain; for instance, the authors posit that the decentralized, autonomous nature of blockchain systems can act much like “a biological virus or an uncontrollable force of nature” if the system was ill-intentioned. Though this same system can regulate the problems of corruption and hierarchy associated with traditional, centralized systems, their autonomy poses an obvious obstacle for law-enforcement.
  • The paper goes on to details all the possible benefits and societal impacts of various applications of blockchain, finally suggesting there exists a need to “rethink” traditional models of regulating society and individuals. They predict a rise in Lex Cryptographia “characterized by a set of rules administered through self-executing smart contracts and decentralized (and potentially autonomous) organizations.” Much of these regulations depend upon the need to supervise restrictions placed upon blockchain technology that may chill its application, for instance corporations who may choose to purposefully avoid including any blockchain-based applications in their search engines so as to stymie the adoption of this technology.