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University of Surrey uses blockchain for digital archives


Mark Say Managing Editor

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The University of Surrey has said it is using blockchain and AI technologies to secure the digital archives of a number of governments including those of the UK, Australia and the US.

It has been working on the programme with the Open Data Institute and the National Archives to develop the Archangel system, a decentralised computer set-up that uses blockchain to create assurances of the integrity of the digital records.

It is part of the university’s work to explore non-financial uses for blockchain – which is best known for underpinning the crypto-currencies such as bitcoin – and has been funded by UK Research and Innovation and the Engineering Physical Sciences and Research Centre’s Digital Economy Programme.

Archangel’s blockchain works as a database maintained by multiple archives, in which everyone can check and add records but nobody can change them. This ensures that the integrity of the historical record remains intact.

This is combined with AI neural networks trained to fingerprint documents as they are received in the archive. Fingerprints are stored in the blockchain and cannot be changed, so that when the document is released the fingerprint can be verified; it will stay the same no matter what format changes occur to the file over time.

This makes it possible to identify any incidences of accidental modifications or tampering with the digital record. Documents can be verified against the original signature at any time, including at release, to ensure the record’s integrity.

Shift in trust

The university said this provides for a shift from an institutional to a technological underscoring of trust, and that archives around the world will be able to protect each other, checking for accidental and deliberate corruption of data.

Professor John Collomose, who leads the project at the University of Surrey, said: “Archives across the world are amassing vast volumes of digital content, and it is important that they can prove their provenance and integrity to the public in a secure and transparent way.

“By combining blockchain and artificial intelligence technologies, we have shown that it is possible to safeguard the integrity of archival data in the digital age. It essentially provides a digital fingerprint for archives, making it possible to verify their authenticity.”

John Sheridan, digital director of the National Archives said “Exploring blockchain technology together with some of the world’s leading archives, the Archangel project has shown, for real, how archives might combine forces to protect and assure vital digital evidence for the future.

“Archangel has been an outstanding partnership that has delivered ground breaking research into the practicalities of using blockchain to assure trust in large scale digital archives.”

International trials

So far Archangel has been trialled in national government archives of the UK, Estonia, Norway, Australia and the US.

Representatives of the university’s Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing are planning to present a paper on the programme to the CVPR Conference in Los Angeles in June.

Image from University of Surrey

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