US Homeland Security’s Tech Scouts Reissue Call for Blockchain Startups


    The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) startup booster, the Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP), renewed its hunt for interoperable, blockchain-based anti-counterfeiting projects at a virtual Industry Day on Tuesday.

    SVIP officials offered startups a fresh batch of use cases – an alternative to Social Security numbers; e-commerce, food and natural gas supply chain traceability projects; and an essential worker license inspired by COVID-19 – plus the same $800,000 in funding and potential to contract with the government that they’ve wooed first-time federal partners with in the past.

    Coming two years after SVIP first ventured into the realm of distributed technologies and forgeries and four years into the Department’s private sector blockchain efforts, the renewed call highlighted the extent to which this lively corner of DHS has courted and funded startups building blockchain solutions for a cabinet department eager to deploy them. 

    “We are in the business of finding global talent to solve our local problems,” said Anil John, SVIP’s technical director at the event. “We are not in the business of doing science experiments.”

    SVIP previously bankrolled Factom, Mavennet, SecureKey, Digital Bazaar and others’ respective efforts to build DHS everything from data-securing Border Patrol camera platforms to timber credential mechanisms. Part of the Science and Technology Directorate, the program has handed out millions in funding.

    John, who is known as the “Blockchain Guru” of DHS, challenged the virtual event’s 300 participants to pitch deployable tools for the Privacy Office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the three DHS branches posing SVIP’s five new use cases.

    Revamping the Social Security number

    Though the Silicon Valley Innovation Program often focuses on funding solutions for internal DHS problems, its call on behalf of the DHS Privacy Office offered startups the rare opportunity to create a tool that touches nearly every person in the country: an alternative to the Social Security number (SSN).

    “We’re not out there to replace SSN, we are there to create something that people can share back and forth without leaking [personally identifiable information],” said David Linder, the senior director for Privacy Policy and Oversight at DHS.

    Such a tool could address one of the most pressing but seemingly insurmountable privacy conundrums in American life. The SSN – the de-facto national identification number and also a gateway to financial services, health care and countless other services – is a highly insecure way of demonstrating one’s identity. 

    The Privacy Office wants startups to come up with an interoperable alternative that DHS can use internally. Indeed, a 2019 directive mandates that DHS phase the number out.

    But Linder told startups that their solutions could, and should, keep wider uses in mind.

    “We feel like a real solution is this working beyond DHS,” he said. “We dont feel that there’s a ton of value” if it’s unique to DHS.

    Essential Worker Attestation

    USCIS officials requested pitches that will let essential DHS workers prove their essential status. They want to make it easier for those still traveling, reporting to offices and doing business as essential workers to show via credentials that they are as essential as they claim. 

    John used the U.S.-Canadian border, currently closed to everything but essential travel and trade, as an example of why government agencies needed such an attestation system. 

    “Both their border services agencies and ours are having challenges at the border when someone shows up and says ‘I am an essential person conducting trade that is allowed by treaty or permission,’” he said. “How do you sort of attest that?”

    But John and the USCIS officials were quick to distinguish between this essential worker license and the COVID-19 immunity passports that some governments and technologists have considered developing. 

    Read more: COVID-19 ‘Immunity Passport’ Unites 60 Firms on Self-Sovereign ID Project

    “We’re not looking for immunity certificates, immunity passports, COVID credentials,” said John Goodwin of USCIS. 

    Anil John, the SVIP technical director, said the science simply does not back up going down such a route.   

    As COVID-19 is one of those diseases that disproportionately targets vulnerable populations, Black communities, our vulnerable essential workers on the frontlines, we are very concerned given the current lack of science around the immunity passport.”

    Supply Chain Tracing

    Startups can also pitch SVIP on supply chain traceability projects that address problem points in food safety, e-commerce and natural gas. 

    Vincent Annunziato, director of CBP’s business transformation division, told attendees that his agency wants to eliminate paper-based supply chains in favor of fully digitized systems that auditors can trust.

    “Right now what tends to happen is the outside entities are supplying data often in paper means,” he said. “What’s the easiest thing in the world to doctor? A piece of paper.”

    Annunziato said that the governments and industries alike are both moving swiftly to update the way they monitor supply chains. He pointed to Walmart’s efforts tracing leafy greens and the Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing interest in blockchain systems.

    If all the disparate parties to a supply chain ported their data into interoperable systems, then he said that companies could see gains in efficiency, and governments could trust the provenance of goods.   

    “We are interested in the team sport of data,” he said.

    Annunziato framed this as a chance to influence a top-down redesign.

    “The government is starting to look at reinventing its processes in a way that’s never been done before,” he said. 

    Interoperability

    Whether or not the startup proposals rely on blockchain is perhaps less important than their proposed solution’s capacity to work in conjunction with others, said John. He repeatedly cited the need to follow open standards that allow technologies to work cross-platform. 

    Referencing SVIP’s previous batch of startups, which built interoperable asset trackers and digital identifiers during a recent collaboration event, John warned the prospective newcomers against pitching a “one ring to bind them all infrastructure.” 

    “What we are looking for is a truly global interoperable and diverse ecosystem of solutions providers who have a baseline of interoperability,” he said. 

    John said that SVIP will consider proposals from all qualifying startups, regardless of their home country or employees’ nationalities. 

    “We are the part of the U.S. government that believes that talent does not stop at borders,” he said.

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