NARA considers blockchain to verify records amid rise in deepfake videos

The National Archives and Records Administration is exploring whether blockchain technology can help records management officials keep track of their vast stores of information, following the successful rollout of the emerging technology elsewhere in government.

Eric “Kyle” Douglas, a records management policy and program support specialist for NARA’s chief records officer, said the future for blockchain looks promising, and could play a role in authenticating digital copies of its images and videos.

Verifying tamper-free versions of documents could prove useful to guard against deepfake videos, which are created by machine-learning algorithms that can manipulate images and audio to make it appear as though public officials have said or did something they did not.

“Alternative information has become a challenge to how the public consumes information,” Douglas said Monday during a presentation at the agency’s Bimonthly Records and Information Discussion Group.

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NARA already tested a version of this technology last year, when it released nearly 20,000 government documents on the 1963 assassination of former President John F. Kennedy. Douglas explained that each of the bulk downloads included a “hash” in the metadata that allows users to validate that the digital material had not been altered.

“Extending this practice to all digital NARA holdings will allow the public to independently verify that digital content taken from NARA’s catalog has not been altered,” he said.

However, Douglas cautioned that any talks of agency transferring blockchain records to NARA remains “completely theoretical at this point,” since it remains unclear whether it would have the resources to archive and ensure long-term access to information stored on the blockchain.

NARA will also want to make sure that officials can open a variety of different file types stored on the blockchain, given the variety of records types it receives from agencies.

“Blockchain shifts the responsibility and trust for maintaining electronic records from the structures of those siloed systems of the organization to a distributed network. These are departures from the role of centralized records management that we’ve been accustomed to,” Douglas said. “A shift to blockchain could provide the validity and trust that records management systems have traditionally performed and this shift may impact how records are organized, arranged and maintained over time.”

An increase in blockchain adoption may also require agencies to retrain or reskill the existing records management workforce. While many federal records management officials have the computer and IT skills needed to work with electronic records, Douglas said future archives staff will need a “multidisciplinary” team that includes computer scientists and software engineers.

But for all the excitement over what blockchain can do for the federal government, most agencies’ projects have yet to leave the pilot program stage of testing.

However, NARA has pointed to the success of HHS Accelerate, which has been using live agency data since December to comb through more than 100,000 HHS contracts to negotiate for lower prices on items the agency’s components buy in bulk.

The successful rollout of HHS Accelerate was highlighted in a report from the Data Foundation and Booz Allen Hamilton on federal adoption of blockchain.

The report also notes the Food and Drug Administration has experimented with blockchain to share sensitive information on cancer patients with researchers, and has looked at ways to use it to track patients during an epidemic.

The report also urges the Trump administration to “encourage further exploration and adoption” of blockchain through the rollout of its Federal Data Strategy. The Office of Management and Budget recently released its one-year implementation strategy.

“Whether blockchain will ultimately prove a success in government is yet to be seen. But for now, the prospects are a welcome development,” the report states.

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