DHS-Funded Company Wants to Use Blockchain at the Border

A member of the Central American migrant caravan, holding a child, looks through the border wall toward a group of people gathered on the U.S. side, as he stands on the beach where the border wall ends in the ocean, in Tijuana, Mexico, April 29, 2018.

A member of the Central American migrant caravan, holding a child, looks through the border wall toward a group of people gathered on the U.S. side, as he stands on the beach where the border wall ends in the ocean, in Tijuana, Mexico, April 29, 2018. Hans-Maximo Musielik/AP File Photo

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DHS may soon use blockchain technology to protect all sorts of data it collects in protecting U.S. borders.

A company that uses blockchain technology to hack-proof data gathered along the southern border entered the final phase of a Homeland Security Department startup accelerator program last week.

The department’s Science and Technology Directorate struck a $192,000 deal with Factom Inc. to fine-tune software that uses blockchain to secure data collected by internet-connected sensors, cameras and other devices. The award will fund the Austin-based group as it begins beta testing its tech in a wide array of operational environments with Customs and Border Protection.

The deal comes as Factom enters the fourth and final phase of Homeland Security’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program, which fast-tracks technologies with the potential to solve national security challenges. Factom is just the second company to enter the last stage of the program.

Blockchain technology allows users to store information on an encrypted ledger that permanently records every exchange. The distributed nature of blockchain prevents outsiders from permanently altering the entire transaction history, making it a highly useful system for keeping tabs on valuable data and ensuring information doesn’t get corrupted.

Because internet-connected devices are often not built to the same rigorous cybersecurity standards as regular computers, they present relatively easy access points for hackers hoping to infiltrate federal IT systems. Using blockchain to track the data coming off CBP devices, Factom’s software would help guarantee the integrity of that information while helping thwart attempts by bad actors to spoof, modify or otherwise disrupt the data.

The Border Protection data itself isn’t stored on the blockchain. Instead, the software creates a unique “fingerprint” for the data, which can later be used to locate that information in a secure data store. It’s that fingerprint that goes on the blockchain.

“What we want is the ability to publicly validate the data...without putting that actual data on the chain itself, because that would be a remarkably bad idea,” said Anil John, S&T’s identity management research and development program manager.

If information resides directly on the blockchain, it’s available to anyone who can access the system, which makes it vulnerable to corruption. Storing identifiers rather than the data builds a layer of separation between the system for validating data and the data itself, limiting the possibility for improper exposure.

DHS already successfully piloted a prototype of the technology. The upcoming tests in Texas will run the system in environments commonly faced by border patrol officers, such as limited internet-connectivity and extreme weather. Final testing is scheduled to last three to six months, after which the agency intends for the technology to be fully ready for public- and private-sector use.

The tool can easily integrate with existing IoT devices, meaning CBP could theoretically adopt the tech without needing to purchase new sensors or cameras. John sees this capability as critical to any blockchain project, especially in the cost-conscious federal space.

“Operational testing in a realistic U.S. Border Patrol environment will greatly benefit the development of this technology,” Melissa Ho, managing director of the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, said in a statement. “SVIP’s goal is to partner with companies to produce the best possible market-ready products that address homeland security needs and we feel that this project could reach that point.”