A More Trusted World: Distributed, Reactive and Holistic

Guest article by Professor Bill Buchanan OBE, PhD, FBCS

Don’t you just love it when your council is able to track you down when you don’t pay your parking ticket, but that they send you a letter saying “Dear Home Owner” when they are compiling their list for a voting register?

Sometime, soon, we need to admit that many of the methods that we use have no place in the 21st Century, and to be still signing a piece of paper to prove our identity is as archaic as using a horse and cart for our journey to work. Even the concept of an online form is a throw-back to our old ways. Many of the security problems we have, too, such as phishing and data breaches, are caused because we run our data over untrusted infrastructures.

21st Century: World Class Digital Government

Our world moves on, and Industry 4.0 is all about building a new world, and one which has trust embedded into its core. We thus need to have ways of focusing on the people that matter – our citizens – and build a world around them, rather than one which builds system which provides very few rights of our citizens. Often the systems and procedures are built around the methods we used in the 20th Century, and are often still bureaucratic and inefficient, where there are few opportunities to actually take any form of control of their provision. Our public sector, too, often has a hard shell around itself, and which often doesn’t want to expose its inner working, or have procedures for tracing problems – it is risk-averse, and often protects itself.

We have very few interactions with our public servants in a meaningful digital way, and there are few ways for us to sustain anything that could trace our route through issues. There’s a feeling too that we shouldn’t criticise something that is “free”, but it is our tax which pays for public services, and it is there to support our citizens.

A new model

Sometime, soon, we need to implement public services which truly put the citizen at the core, and which move towards a more distributed model of patient care and which is pre-emptive than that reactive:


For health and well-being we need to look at ways to understand the complex pathways that patients take and use digital technologies to improve their care and thus share information which benefits them:


At the core of the building of this new world is trust, both digital trust (rights and identity) and human trust (strong governance and useful services). Only with this can we build an infrastructure which can share information across different parts of the public sector, and not to be seen as something as governments spying on individuals (as Big Brother in 1984):

So with the forthcoming GDPR directive coming into force in May 2018, we now have a key driver to change our approaches, as our existing methods of providing public services often has little in the way of digital engagement for our citizens.

In the UK, to still have a paper-based health record for our children – the Red Book – seems like a lost opportunity to gather data on the health and well-being of our children, and for parents to understand their development. For this to still be in a paper form is a massive missed opportunity for the creation of a personal health record which recorded your child’s well-being, and thus to be proactive with their health.

Some cities, though, such as London, have adopted the e-Red Book for every child born. For it not to be implemented in Scotland – where the creators of the e-Red Book are based and where they employ their developers – is something that I cannot understand.

Building a new world?

Our public sector needs to start to work together in a consistent digital manner, and open themselves up for increased engagement with citizens and thus support the development of new ways of working.

So, how do we build a new world, which replaces bureaucracy and where, as a citizen, you have rights and can have some control your own world? Well, we must get rid of paper forms … and their sibling … electronic forms. Why must we keep entering details of ourselves and reapply for things that should be our rights? In a new world, we create trusted identities, attributes and roles, and we define governance policies which map these to signed attestations.

If we thus trust the signer, then we trust the attestation. For example, Bob Smith (aka Robert Smith, Rab Smith, and Bobby Smith) has one trusted identity but is known by other names. He has Type 2 diabetes and which gives him rights the discounted medicine from Boots. Along with this he is over 60 years old and is eligible to free bus trips on the buses in Edinburgh. Our new world creates a smart contract on a blockchain, and which is known for its requirements and how it is enacted. Bob now has to get a signed attestation from his GP and then present this to the smart contract, and then the next time he goes into Boots, he will get his discount:


And so you say, but Bob has just revealed to the world that he has diabetes! Well, there’s no need to store the attestation on the blockchain, all that is required is a signed hashed version of the attestation, and that the actual attestation and its details can be presented to the smart contract from the entity which governs the implementation of NHS contracts. In there is a complete audit trail for the implementation of the service and an immediate enactment of the contract. The smart contract knows, too, how long Bob’s attestation lasts for and will enact the discount as long as the GP can verify his diabetes. Another smart contract then monitors for claims and prompts Bob to go back to see his GP (or another trusted entity) to renew his attestation.


So for all the government officials that rain against cryptography, they are not truly seeing the future. As long as we enact our 21st Century using the methods of the 20th Century, I will believe that we will fall further behind other nations of the world in creating a new economy, which brings both social and economic benefit but also puts the health and well-being of our citizens at the core of everything.

When I started to promote the ideas around the of technology I was often told that “My Mum couldn’t use that”, but “My Mum” is the best advocate of the iPad I have ever met, so to say that access to technology is a barrier, has gone. We now need to provide an environment for our public services which will allow our next generation to build on, so go ahead and build it …

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