Virginia lawmakers want to get in on this blockchain thing

By: - August 22, 2018 6:01 am

An artist’s representation of a blockchain network. (Pixabay)

Now they just have to figure out how and why.

Blockchain, the decentralized database technology behind Bitcoin, has emerged as an endlessly recurring buzzword in tech fields. And, to be fair, the technology is promising in a lot of ways to the extent that it protects against data loss and manipulation, making it a potentially good fit for some government record keeping.

In a bid to get a little piece of all this blockchain action, Virginia lawmakers established an official Blockchain Subcommittee under the auspices of the state’s Joint Commission on Technology and Sciences.

Led by Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, who let slip that he is a bit of a Bitcoin enthusiast himself, the group held their first meeting Tuesday.

Davis was the only lawmaker who actually showed up. (There are four others members of the GA on the subcommittee.)

But the room did fill with lobbyists for companies with interests in blockchain technology and representatives of various government agencies that are interested, among them, the State Corporation Commission, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Education, which is considering a pilot program related to its credentialing record keeping.

In particular, Davis asked for “low hanging fruit” — ideas for blockchain legislation that are easy to agree on and that the General Assembly can consider when it meets next year.

There was no obvious consensus by the end of the one-hour inaugural meeting regarding what that might look like.

Chelsea Pullen, an attorney at Troutman Sanders, said no states have implemented the technology themselves, but some are studying it or passing legislation that addresses it. She cited a Brookings Institute study that found nearly every state has at least taken measures to say they’re “blockchain friendly.” A handful have gone further to study the technology. Illinois, Delaware and Vermont stand out, she said.

While there was no obvious consensus for how the state might embrace blockchain yet, they did address one area where they think the technology shouldn’t be used: Voting. Definitely not voting.

Audrey Malagon, from the Verified Voting Foundation, said in a presentation to the board that contrary to what one might think, the technology does not open the door to online or mobile-phone based elections.

She said that’s because it would be impossible to secure everyone’s devices from malware and attacks, meaning votes could be changed before they even get to the secure blockchain. And because there would be no paper ballots to audit, there’d be know way of knowing what went wrong.

“It could make things worse,” she said, “by giving a false sense of security.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.