Congress wants the Defense Department (DoD) to elaborate on its growing interest is blockchain technology, the secure digital ledger system that can be applied not only to protect financial transactions, but also many other operations such as defending against cyberattacks, protecting logistics supply chains, and securing communications with aircraft and satellites.
The $700 billion defense authorization bill passed by the Senate this month includes a directive that DoD conduct a comprehensive blockchain study to be delivered to Congress within six months of the bill’s signing. The mandate, included in an amendment to the bill, requires DoD to report on “the potential offensive and defensive cyber applications of blockchain technology and other distributed database technologies and an assessment of efforts by foreign powers, extremist organizations, and criminal networks to utilize these technologies.”
The amendment, introduced by Rep. Mac Thorberry, R-Texas, in the House and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in the Senate, further orders DOD to describe how government agencies or critical infrastructure networks plan to use blockchain and to assess “the vulnerabilities of such networks to cyber-attacks.” The authorization bill was passed by the Senate on Nov. 16 and sent to President Trump for his signature, although doubts remain about where all of the funding will come from.
Blockchain is perhaps best known as the encrypted record-keeping system that supports the sometimes murky operations of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. But its distributed, decentralized approach, in which transactions are recorded into “blocks” that cannot be altered without verification, holds potential in other areas. Industry is employing blockchain to track shipments and distribution networks as well as financial transactions, and the technology is drawing interest for everything from insurance markets to proponents of online voting. DOD, too, sees a lot of potential in blockchain.
The technology “will likely revolutionize much of the way we do business in the next ten years,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jon McCarter, a member of the Naval Innovation Advisory Council, wrote in a recent blog post. Blockchain could “revolutionize Naval Additive Manufacturing, finance, and logistics writ large, and that’s only scratching the surface,” he wrote.
Because so much of DOD’s operations depend on networked communications, analysts say blockchain could be applied extensively in cybersecurity, for instance in preventing hacks or the digital hijacking of vehicles or satellites. In manufacturing, the Navy thinks blockchain could secure the supply chain for parts that are 3-D printed at sea and in other deployed locations.
DOD is also exploring its use in secure messaging. Earlier this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded a Phase 1 contract to ITAMCO, developer of the Crypto Chat privacy app, to work on a messaging and transaction platform that separates the creation, transfer and reception of messages “to allow anyone anywhere the ability to send a secure message or conduct other transactions across multiple channels traceable in a decentralized ledger,” as DARPA put it in its original solicitation.
Congress’ call for a report from DOD reflects blockchain’s growing applications, since it asks not only about DOD’s proposed used but how adversaries are, or could be, employing the technology.