Blockchain technology, just like cryptocurrency, is going viral. It turns out that its simple, unsophisticated architecture is ideal for many uses in diverse industries. To this end, major companies in the finance, transport, catering, and even farming industries, among many others, are adopting the technology for the most interesting uses. Governments, too, are doing the same.
Switzerland is one of the countries experimenting with Blockchain technology for a wide array of uses. The most ambitious yet involves the Switzerland Federal Railways (SBB).
Making railways safer
The Swiss government has strict regulations about how railways (and many other infrastructures) should be built. For its railways, the government works with a third party to check and verify all its workers’ certifications and credentials. This ensures that every worker is competent and consequently helps reduce the risks of accidents, which are usually associated with malpractice. It is necessary, but the process is nevertheless complex and utilizes a lot of time and resources.
Blockchain technology has been adopted as a solution to the complexity of the current verification and log-keeping systems. A test trial has already been run successfully and plans are currently underway to integrate the new technology into the entire country’s railways network.
How it works
The new SBB verification system relies on a broad partnership between several companies to work. One of these companies is uPort. SBB workers are required to download the uPort mobile app onto their phone for verification purposes. Once the app is downloaded the worker should then proceed to register his/her ID on the Ethereum Blockchain network. The app will then retrieve this information and encode it on a QR code. This can be done from anywhere, but the rest of the process demands that the worker is located in the city that issued his certificate.
For verification and approval, the worker should scan the assigned QR code with the city that issued his certification. Once the scan is successful the worker can then approve the transaction – a link to his/her certification will then be sent to the uPort mobile app. A supervisor will then check the certification for double-verification and grant access to the site.
There is still need for a third party for supervisory purposes, but that’s all. Vital data such as the time spent working, check-in and check-out times, and every other important piece of information is logged, recorded, and tracked by the Blockchain platform. As such, the government saves a lot of money and qualified personnel can work more efficiently.
A group effort
This landmark success by the Swiss government (yet another in a series of many) has been made possible by the combined efforts of three Blockchain companies: Linum Labs, ConsenSys, and uPort. However, Linum Labs and ConsenSys are in control of everything while uPort only serves as an open-source platform owing to several complications with regulation. Speaking to the press in an interview, Thierry Bonfante, the Head of Product at uPort, said, “Our partners are representing our system on the market. We’ll just make sure that they have all they need from us.”
Legal and privacy concerns
One of the outstanding qualities of Blockchain technology is that all data logged on a chain cannot be changed. This means that it cannot be deleted either. This raises some privacy concerns considering the sensitivity of the data required for this and other systems to work. This issue is so sensitive that the European Union has passed several policies regulating the use of Blockchain technology and other emerging technologies. One of these policies has been dubbed the “right to be forgotten”.
Under the “right to be forgotten” policy, companies are required to delete their users’ data upon request. This, however, is impossible as demonstrated. This is one of the reasons why uPort cannot actively take part in Switzerland’s new SBB Blockchain network. The company is planning to circumvent this complication by storing data off-chain on users’ mobile phones. This means that users can not only delete their data at will but also guarantees greater privacy.
So, where does this leave Blockchain – it isn’t really Blockchain if data can be deleted or even manipulated. According to Mr. Bonfante, “Blockchain is only used for additional key management purposes, such as key rotation, revocation, and delegation to third parties.”
The issue of scalability
uPort currently works with Ethereum’s Blockchain network. This network hosts thousands of decentralized apps and grapples with scalability problems. This is also a problem not only for uPort but also the entire system.
Expectedly, uPort and all involved parties expect the new system to take off and spread to other uses. Alice Nawfal, the Director of Business Operations at uPort, admitted that the current system only works well for small amounts of data. She also expressed concerns about its viability in the long term. “It will probably not work on a phone when the storage needs become more complex,” Ms. Nawfal said in an interview with CoinDesk.
To this end, uPort is making plans to manufacture its own gadgets to replace smartphones. These gadgets are expected to offer more storage space and greater processing power than smartphones. Finer details about this, however, are not forthcoming as of yet.
Switzerland leading the way
Switzerland has been exceptionally accommodating of Blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies, unlike most other countries that have taken on a cautionary approach. To this end, the current project by the Swiss Federal Railways is just one among many. One of the country’s most notable use of Blockchain technology happened in the Swiss city of Zug, where residents were given the opportunity to vote using the technology. It proved successful and has certainly set a precedent for similar uses in other countries – the idea to use Blockchain for the social sector has even been considered in the U.S.A.
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