Skift Take

As governments and big corporations adopt blockchain solutions to persistent challenges, one shouldn't lose sight of the fact that blockchain's ledger technology can be used to surveil and persecute travelers.

The blockchain craze has subsided after people saw the plummeting values of Bitcoin and Etherium tank their hopes of getting rich quick, but travel companies and technology partners remain committed to finding uses for blockchain to ease friction across the ecosystem.

At the JetBlue Technology Ventures Blockchain in Travel Summit in New York City on Wednesday, a variety of airline and technology folks converged to discuss the future of blockchain as a solution in travel. But perhaps the most interesting topic emerged when the subject of the U.S. government’s use of blockchain came up.

When asked by moderator David Post, managing director of IBM Blockchain Ventures, what customs and border protections’ killer blockchain app would be when it comes to interactions with other customs organizations around the world, the answer from Sikina Hasham, a program manager at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was clear: biometric tracking.

“One area we’ve seen a significant amount of success in is facial comparison and biometric data,” said Hasham. “There is a service we’ve created to verify who an individual boarding an aircraft who is as they’re seeking admission into the United States. If we could have more data for the verification from another government party, that would be really great for us.”

Using a blockchain solution to streamline the process of securely sharing data across governments sounds powerful, but the roadblocks for now are numerous. Despite trials and pilots, the blockchain space lacks serious standards to undergird and standardize communications between organizations.

“Our primary goal is security, but also facilitating trade and travel,” said Hasham. “Blockchain is relatively new for us, we have trialed some blockchain technology in the trade space… in the travel space, we are still working on figuring out how industry stakeholders in the technology space will help us get a better sense of [the uses of blockchain]… privacy and decentralized information are some of the challenges we as a government organization have a legal obligation to protect.”

There’s also the obvious fact that governments routinely share data using traditional databases and blockchain may prove unnecessary as part of the technology stack that undergirds their systems. The U.S. government isn’t going to go full-in on blockchain; it needs to see corporates and other governments lead the way.

“When do you need blockchain versus when does something else also work?” asked Hasham. “Getting leadership or buy-ins from other governments… thinking about how we protect that information but also share it…. from the government’s perspective, adoption is also important; we’re usually not first adopters… the value proposition for government is missing, but we’re hungry for new technologies. We enjoy partnering with startups, particularly in Silicon Valley.”

From the corporate perspective, various groups on hand discussed the early stages of blockchain across travel. Investors, technologists, and others still see the promise in blockchain as a technology solution.

“If you look at the blockchain world, if we believe what the analysts say, 90 percent of the profits are expected to accrue to network owners,” said IBM Blockchain Ventures’ Post. ” Over the next 12 years, it’s a $100 billion opportunity for the apps, and a $1 trillion opportunity for the app stores. I’m not very good at math, but that is very simple math to me.”

Whether the math is simple or not, travel technologists and investors are going to continue to follow the money, especially if the government is buying.


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Tags: blockchain, CBP, customs

Photo credit: Speakers at the 2019 JetBlue Technology Ventures Blockchain in Travel Summit. Andrew Sheivachman / Skift

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