Proving Provenance with Blockchain

John Palfreyman
Mar 17, 2016 · 3 min read

Provenance (from the French provenir, “to come from”), is the chronology of the ownership, custody and/or location of an (historical) object. Provenance could be described as an immutable audit trail of ownership & location as it changes over time.

Whilst the concept of provenance is well understood, it’s often hard to achieve in practice. In a world where fraud, cyber and organized crime is every more prevalent, assuring provenance has never been more important. Whether its to prove that a Stradivarius Violin is the “real thing”, or a diamond originates from legal sources, or even to knowing the origin of component parts in a complex “system of systems” an accurate, validated and immutable view provenance is often critical to many types of risk mitigation.

How is Blockchain Relevant?

Let’s explain Blockchain from a business viewpoint. Business — and Governments — never operate in isolation. They are participants in a business network. Ownership of assets — tangible (e.g. a car, a house) or intangible (bonds, intellectual property) pass across the network in return for payments, governed by contracts. Network participants keep their own ledger — recording all assets they own and updated on asset transfer. This process is very inefficient, prone to fraud or error and often piling cost on cost. It is far from fit for the needs of the twenty first century!

Figure 1 — Challenge: difficult to monitor ownership across business network

The novel alternative Blockchain architecture gives participants the ability to share a ledger which is updated every time a transaction occurs through peer to peer replication. Privacy services (using cryptography) ensure that participants see only the parts of the ledger that are relevant to them, and that transactions are secure, authenticated and verifiable. Blockchain allows the contract for asset transfer to be embedded in the transaction database for execution with the transaction. Network participants agree the methods used for transaction verification — a process known as “consensus”. Government oversight, compliance & audit can be part of the same network.

Figure 2– Solution: shared, replicated, permissioned ledger

Blockchain to Prove Provenance

A Blockchain can be formed to record changes to asset ownership and / or location over it’s lifetime. Asset details can be stored in a secure ledger store that is locked to the Blockchain transactions and / or network participants.

Let’s consider a complex system of systems such as a modern aircraft. It’s hard to track the provenance of each component part down to the detail of manufacturer, country, production date, batch and even the manufacturing machine program.

Blockchain could hold the complete provenance details of each component part. This would be accessible by each manufacturer in the production process, the aircraft owners, maintainers and government regulators.

The benefits would be increased trust since no central authority “owns” provenance; improvement in system utilization — due to reduced times to maintain and more efficient recalls, targeted to individual aircraft rather than cross fleet.

More Information?

  1. IBM on Blockchain
  2. Blockchain for Government
  3. Bold with Blockchain
  4. Blockchain, Where’s my stuff?

Agree, disagree, disinterested? I’d much appreciate an active debate on this topic! Contact me through leaving a comment, twitter or LinkedIn!

Originally posted on Insights on Business, March 2016

John Palfreyman

Written by

Social Business, Defence, Intelligence & Public Safety at IBM; Views are my own!