Blockchain/Internet of Things R&D at the Department of Homeland Security

Published: November 20, 2019

Federal Market AnalysisContracting TrendsCBPDHSInformation TechnologyInternet of ThingsSmart Infrastructure

DHS experiments with blockchain to secure the Internet of Things

Over the last couple of years, a lot of attention has been focused on the Department of Defense’s use of Other Transaction Authority (OTA) to award contracts for technology prototypes. However, DOD is not the only federal government department using OTA for IT R&D requirements. The Department of Homeland Security also has the authority to issue OTA contracts for IT prototypes, and since 2017 it has made use of that authority to award a handful of agreements for projects related to the use of blockchain technology for securing the Internet of Things (IoT).

Although spending on the OTA awards made so far by DHS pales in comparison to the multi-million dollar deals regularly announced by the DOD, it did almost double annually from FY 2016 to FY 2018. This indicates a growing comfort at DHS with leveraging OTA agreements for certain types of R&D requirements.  

Blockchain-related programs specifically make up an even smaller percentage of that spending total, amounting to only $1.8M altogether.

Each of the companies shown in this chart received their awards as part of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP), an initiative that reaches out to innovative firms which do not typically compete for government contracts. S&T’s SVIP office in California mirrors the approach taken by the DOD’s Defense Innovation Unit, which also opened an office in Silicon Valley a few years ago.

As for the application of blockchain technology, here is the type of work each of these companies has been doing.

CryptoMove: Awarded OTA contracts #HSHQDC17900014 and 70RSAT18T00000029 by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) security, CryptoMove leverages blockchain for its “dynamic defense data protection system,” which constantly changes the attack surface, rendering unmanned vehicles – themselves IoT devices – more secure.

Factom: Under OTA contracts #70RSAT18T00000019, HSHQDC17900005 and HSHQDC17900030, also awarded by CBP, Factom began “beta testing a capability that uses blockchain technology to secure IoT data.” Their blockchain software plug-in is intended to make IoT devices tamper proof.

Ionic Security: Recipient of three OTA agreements (#HSHQDC17900009, HSHQDC17900028 and 70RSAT18T00000011), Ionic Security is developing a Manageable at-Scale Crypto Solution for Securing IoT Devices based on its proprietary technology solution.

In these three projects we see DHS grappling with challenges relevant to the emergence of new technologies. Unmanned aircraft are becoming more common, but with little in the way of security for controlling them. This renders them subject to hacking and, by extension, hijacking, for potentially nefarious purposes. The IoT, meanwhile, presents huge security challenges because of the proliferation of potentially vulnerable endpoints. Security solutions to date simply cannot scale to the size required for the IoT to be secure. Until these security problems are solved every new device networked will increase the vulnerability of networks and data. This is the challenge DHS’s S&T Directorate is trying to overcome.