For more than 400 years, since the setting up of bodies such as Registers of Scotland, governments have been trusted to manage our data – benefitting both citizens and businesses.
These public registers record people’s key life events, from the birth of their children to getting on the housing ladder. For businesses they record licences, ownership, regulatory reporting, planning applications, consents and much more.
Public registers store certificates and deeds together with information about rights and responsibilities – for example our right to vote, or a business’s progress in reducing their carbon emissions.
They keep our key credentials safe.
They also, on request, issue these credentials to support our claims – such as whether we own a particular property, or that a business is appropriately licensed – to parties who need to verify them.
Such registers remain some of society’s most important and trusted institutions, four centuries on.
Which begs the question, where did it all go wrong for government and our biggest tech firms when it comes to the use of digital data?
Public trust in government and the tech giants’ use of data is at an all-time low. It’s a bit like mistrusting banks and hiding your cash under the bed…it doesn’t really work. But data isn’t physical like cash – who actually knows how much data is around about us already, and who holds it?
This lack of trust has come to the forefront in 2020, especially thanks to the health and economic stresses heaped on us by Covid-19.
But as we continue to move forward into a new digital future, we need to trust technology as much as our longstanding institutions – regardless of who is in charge.
How can we do this? The key comes from one of the most trustworthy technologies to evolve in the last 20 years – but probably the most misunderstood.
It’s blockchain technology, which has never been hacked. Many people are realising that blockchain – or more properly Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) – provides a means of making public registers much more useful.
The Scottish Government thought DLT so important it commissioned a review in 2018. They found that it met fundamental requirements: it provides confidentiality (people have control over how their data is used), auditability (people can see how their data has been used), resilience (no single point of failure), decentralisation (no central authority has control over the data), and it is tamper proof (data cannot be altered or deleted).
DLT provides the opportunity to build trusted, secure, digital registers of verified data about citizens and businesses, holding certificates much like now, but in an easily usable digital form.
Citizens would use their own keys to access this data and decide who could see this information – such as sharing proof of verified disabled status on a public register when applying for a blue badge parking badge.
Businesses would use their keys in a similar way to share verified data about their organisation, streamlining processes such as raising loans and equity, winning contracts, and proving regulatory compliance.
Using joined-up digital registers that everyone can trust and rely on would speed up so many aspects of our lives. By cutting out paperwork and streamlining transactions our personal and business productivity would increase immeasurably. Some credible estimates suggest savings of a week each year.
There are those worried about civil liberties who would prefer citizens to own, and be responsible for, the storage of all their own personal digital data, almost like keeping the title deeds to your house in your wallet, or cash under the bed.
It’s time to renew our faith in the authorities managing our data responsibly, using the correct technology to make this happen. Bodies like Registers of Scotland and the National Records of Scotland have already shown they have the track record to do this.
They can continue doing so in the digital world – if we let them.