This article looks at some of the ways in which blockchain technologies are being used by international organisations, state authorities and health institutions to tackle some of the challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. We also highlight some of the legal issues arising from the use of blockchain technology.
The unique features of blockchain – its use of cryptography, peer-to-peer networking and a distributed public ledger – make it ideal for tracking the spread of the virus, facilitating the sharing of essential Covid-19 related data, and securing medical supply chains.
A key issue in managing the pandemic is the need for reliable, up to date data concerning the outbreak and spread of the virus. One of the advantages of blockchain is that it can provide verifiable data using distributed ledger technology and peer-to-peer networking. A blockchain is a public database, or "ledger", which is stored in multiple locations across a decentralised network. Data is added to the ledger in "blocks". Each time a new block is added it must first be verified by all participants in the network. This way, multiple parties can collaborate over the validity of rapidly updating data, thereby ensuring the data recorded on the ledger is accurate and up to date.
A number of platforms have recently been launched which use this technology to facilitate the sharing of Covid-19 related data.
In March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in partnership with several major tech companies launched MiPasa, a blockchain-based platform which purports to facilitate “fully private information sharing between individuals, state authorities and health institutions.”
MiPasa synthesizes location data and health information from various sources such as the WHO, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and other similar agencies, and attempts to reconcile them by allowing the public to report data discrepancies, thus creating a single source of verified and up-to-date information.
The platform also facilitates privacy-enabled self-reporting by allowing public health officials and individuals to upload data about the time and exact location of different infections.This data source is stripped of personally identifying information, allowing a person to see if they have been in the vicinity of someone who has been infected before.
In Honduras, the Toronto-based technology firm Emerge has launched Civitas, a mobile phone app which associates users' government-issued ID numbers with unique records managed on a blockchain-based network. This helps government agencies with determining whether an individual should be approved for a permit to leave their residence to receive medical treatment. If a user reports that they are experiencing Covid-19 symptoms, then the Civitas app can assist with determining when would be the best and safest time for them to leave their home to get essential items such as food and medicine.
The app can also assist physicians and other healthcare providers by allowing them to track Covid-19 symptoms and include any notes related to the patient’s care. Such data is made available exclusively to the user and healthcare provider, and is cryptographically secured, thus alleviating any privacy concerns.
Medical Supply Chain Management
In addition to facilitating the sharing of data, blockchain solutions can also help manage and optimise supply chains in medical equipment and other essential supplies needed for treating and containing the virus. In the Netherlands, the distributed ledger technology firm Tymlez has provided its blockchain platform to the Dutch government as the underlying technology for mapping and analysing the country's medical supply chain. The use of this blockchain platform ensures that supply and demand are matched and creates transparency across the supply chain, reducing the risk of price gouging and hoarding in relation to critical supplies such as PPE and ventilators.
A similar network has been launched in the United States and Canada, by IBM in collaboration with the blockchain firm Chainyard. The network, called Rapid Supplier Connect (RSC), is a blockchain-based network designed to help government agencies and healthcare organisations identify new, non-traditional suppliers who have pivoted to address the shortage of essential equipment, devices and supplies needed for Covid-19 relief efforts. RSC aims to alleviate the strain on medical supply chains by accelerating the process for verifying and onboarding non-traditional suppliers and providing real-time inventories of life-saving equipment.
Contact Tracing Apps
Governments around the world are taking steps towards introducing contact tracing apps – smart phone apps which use phone tracking technology to enable users to determine whether they have come into physical proximity with infected persons. One of the main challenges associated with the adoption of these apps is the need to ensure data protection and privacy for users. Blockchain could potentially provide a solution to these privacy issues. As a complementary tool to the tracking technology, a blockchain ledger could be used as the basis for recording data relating to users' movements and sharing this data with other participants on the ledger.
The use of a blockchain platform would ensure that users' identity is protected through encryption and anonymous identifiers. Instead of usernames and passwords, each user would be provided with a unique, encrypted digital identity which could be used to manage and share personal data. The use of private key technology would give users ultimate control over the data they wish to share. Furthermore, because the blockchain ledger is immutable, this means that any shared information will remain safe and secure and cannot be tampered with.
Blockchain: Legal Issues
There are a number of legal issues associated with the use of blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies.
One of the emerging uses of blockchain is as a platform for "smart contracts". These are automated self-executing contracts, consisting wholly or in part of computer code, which are deployed on a distributed ledger and which can be used to execute transactions between participants on the ledger. In principle, the ordinary rules of contract law apply to smart contracts and these types of contracts may give rise to legally enforceable obligations if the traditional formalities for the conclusion of a contract are complied with (ie offer, acceptance, intention to create legal relations and consideration). In Ireland, the use of electronic signatures to execute contracts is valid under the Electronic Commerce Act 2000 (the 2000 Act). It is likely that private keys used on blockchain platforms, which are intended to authenticate documents or transactions, would fall within the definition of "electronic signature" contained in the 2000 Act.
To the extent that data stored on a blockchain ledger could constitute "personal data", there may potentially be a conflict between blockchain technologies and data protection law, specifically as regards compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (EU Regulation 679/2016) (GDPR). Ultimately, this would depend on the particular use case in question and each case would need to be analysed based on its own particular facts.