UK National Archives looks to blockchain to ensure history can’t be rewritten

A blog post from the UK National Archives has outlined how it is looking into blockchain-based solutions to ensure the information it holds is not tampered with.

The post by Alex Green, the Kew-based Archive’s Digital Preservation Services Manager (titled Trustworthy technology: the future of digital archives) looks into what the it is doing to ensure the veracity of data as they transition between media to keep up with new technology. It begins by making the point that, if the archive can be changed for the better – i.e. ported across to new and better file formats, it could possibly be changed for the worse too.

“This is one of the biggest challenges in digital archiving,” Green says, “the records are intangible and so they could be vulnerable to changes that might be made without detection and on a huge scale.”

This means “the records you are looking at might not the same as the records that were archived 20 years ago.”

“In other words history,” Green concludes, “might be rewritten.”

In order to tackle this threat to the integrity of its records, the Archive is undertaking a project called ‘Archangel’ alongside the University of Surrey and the UK Open Data Institute. Funded by The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), it is looking to answer some clear questions.

  • “How can we demonstrate that the record you see today is the same record that was entrusted to the archive 20 years previously?
  • “How do we prove that the only changes made to it were legitimate and have not affected the content?”
  • “How do we ensure that citizens continue to see archives as trusted custodians of the digital public record?”

It would seem that, top of the list as an answer to these problems – and thus the focus of Archangel – is blockchain technology’s distributed ledgers. Thus Archangel will prototype a blockchain that the National Archive can use to generate hashes – the codes that underpin all cryptocurrencies and ensure the integrity of the blockchain by confirming content, and its relationship to previous and ensuing blocks – to be placed in a ‘permissioned blockchain’ that requires authorised access.

The project, Green believes, “will result in the creation of many copies of a persistent and unchangeable record of the state of a document,” that will be “verifiable using the same cryptographic algorithms, many years into the future.”

The ledger, they hope, would be supported collaboratively across many participating archives around the world, thus ensuring that – though centralised by, say, Bitcoin’s standards, the record is immune to attempts by any specific government or entity to rewrite the records therein.

The project, the blog states, “could transform the sustainability of digital public archives, enabling archives to share the stewardship of the records and, by sharing, guarantee the integrity of the records they hold.”