It often comes as a surprise to hear that most of the government registers in Estonia today are operated electronically. The key question here is to guarantee their integrity and safety.
Mehis Sihvart, Director of the Centre of Registers and Information Systems
For many electronic registers paper documents are no longer produced and the old files have either been destroyed or archived. The only legal value of such government registers is inside the database. Therefore, we need to protect the data against unauthorised changes, software bugs and even our own technical staff. For the Estonian government, as for the Centre of Registers and Information Systems (RIK), blockchain proved to be a technological method for guaranteeing the integrity of government data.
RIK manages and administers over 70 information systems and registers, many of which are vital for the state and its citizens. Our everyday risk is that someone might deliberately or accidently tamper with the information. Hence, keeping the data “safe and sound” is of our utmost concern. To protect the data against being tampered with, RIK already uses blockchain technology in the National Gazette, Register of Wills, Digital Court File, Land Register and Business Register. The purpose of these government e-services (registers) is to guarantee the integrity of information and the legal rights of ownership.
Imagine citizens no longer having access to the correct versions of laws and regulations, someone deleted the will of a person, had access to a digital court case file they were not entitled to see or land ownership was secretly changed and the citizen lost the title (ownership) to a plot of land or an apartment. The loss would be unimaginable, and therefore RIK started looking for a technological solution that could help protect the data against being tampered with. Blockchain proved to be a good tool for this purpose.
Blockchain and RIK’s information systems
The Register of Wills was the first register under RIK to implement blockchain. According to the initial idea, we take the will information from the database and publish it in the blockchain, so that no one could remove or change the will in the registry. The information sent to the blockchain is encrypted. We at RIK validate the data against blockchain, and therefore know the data has not been removed or tampered with. This gives us good security when managing this as well as other government registers.
In no other system is maintaining data integrity as vital as it is in the National Gazette. Since 1 June 2010, the electronic National Gazette has been the one and only publication where laws and regulations are published. The whole of Estonia relies on the information provided by the National Gazette. There is no paper copy to turn to if something is wrong in the portal. What you can see in the National Gazette is what the law has been and currently is in Estonia. To protect such an important database, RIK uses various security measures, one of them being blockchain.
Blockchain technology is used as one layer in securing the information against unauthorised changes. By integrating the hash values of laws and regulations published in xml format together with the hash values of the digitally signed version into a cryptographic chain, we have created the means to regularly validate all the information published on the portal. In the case of unauthorised changes to the information, we would be notified immediately and could take action. Therefore, blockchain technology can not only be used as a way to add trust to the information, but also as a simple mechanism to regularly verify and be aware of the truthfulness of that information.
Blockchain technology has also helped us in maintaining trust in court case files that are only available in electronic format. Moreover, the technology helps to ensure that the parties to a case can only have access to the information they are entitled to, and later to validate who saw what information and when. The Land Register and Business Register are also currently in the process of being linked to the blockchain in a similar way.
How does blockchain work?
Blockchain keeps logs of events in a “book of blockchain” called the ledger. If the blockchain keeps operating for the next 100 years, we can come back to today’s events and see the factual truth about history. The blockchain ledger is traditionally distributed between many bookkeepers or “miners” across the world and the truth is controlled using the consensus methodology. This means the truth is considered true when 51% of the miners confirm that the content of the book is correct. Miners earn virtual money for holding the ledger in their computer and are, hence, motivated to participate in this network. As the blockchain ledger is traditionally an open book and anyone can write and read it, the system itself does not need authority.
Trusting the source of information is becoming increasingly important in today’s world. Since RIK always tries to be one step ahead, we are already today looking into how to make our systems even more secure. We are, for example, considering implementing a mechanism for a regular citizen to validate the authenticity of an electronically delivered court document at any given time. To that end, we are also looking at blockchain technology to assist us.
As blockchain technology is evolving very quickly, it is difficult to predict all the benefits and options it might offer in the coming years, but RIK definitely wants to remain at the forefront of implementing the newest technology for its systems and registers.
Current blog is created according to the action plan for promoting the E-Estonia´s reputation.
The action plan for promoting the E-Estonia´s reputation has been developed and it’s partial implementation is coordinated by the European Union Structural Assistance support scheme “Raising awareness of the Information Society”, funded by the European Regional Development Fund.