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24 November 2023 | Story André Damons | Photo SUPPLIED
Ricus Krause, an honours student in the Department of Computer Science and Informatics at the University of the Free State (UFS)
Ricus Krause, an honours student in the Department of Computer Science and Informatics at the University of the Free State (UFS), receives his awards during the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (The South African Academy for Science and Arts) Student Symposium in Natural Sciences.

An honours student in the Department of Computer Science and Informatics at the University of the Free State (UFS) project on using blockchain technology to protect whistleblowers secured him first place for the best project and presentation in his session at the annual Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (The South African Academy for Science and Arts) Student Symposium in Natural Sciences.

Ricus Krause, who presented his project, titled “Blokskakel Fluitjieblaser-Stelsel” (Blockchain Whistleblower System), at the symposium, also received the Eureka DIY Solutions Prize for an Outstanding Contribution to Computer Sciences and Mathematical Sciences. The symposium was hosted by the University of Pretoria in October.  

His research aimed to address the shortcomings of current systems for protecting whistleblowers and to design a robust computer system that ensures the confidentiality and integrity of information by using blockchain technology. This system had to protect whistleblowers’ identities and securely preserve evidence of corruption. 

Interested in Cybersecurity

“I have been interested in Cybersecurity ever since I started studying. I approached Dr Wynand Nel (supervisor) at the start of my honours year to ask if he had any ideas for a security-focused project, and he introduced me to blockchain technology and the blockchain research group. Blockchain piqued my security interest and allowed me to explore the field further.”

“After meeting with the group, the idea of a blockchain-based system for whistleblowers was born, and I started researching South Africa’s biggest problems, where corruption is at the top. During my initial research, I also discovered that whistleblowers face extreme consequences much more frequently than we think,” says Krause. 

He identified the main problem with whistleblowing as the revelation of a whistleblower’s identity before it is safe. Thus, a system was needed to protect a whistleblower’s anonymity and facilitate safe communication to contact investigators.

On winning the awards, Krause said he knew he was competing against master’s and PhD students and did not expect to win. “This was the first time I’d presented my project at an event, so I was surprised when my name was called for the first prize in my session. I wanted to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.”

“I am genuinely grateful to have had the opportunity to present months of research to my peers and experts in their fields. I will always look back at the event with fond memories. I am proud of myself and my fellow students for presenting their research at the symposium when others did not dare to,” he says. 

Address shortcomings of current systems

Krause is supervised by Dr Nel and Dr Rouxan Fouché, lecturers in the Department of Computer Science and Informatics and this research project falls within the department’s research focus area of Blockchain Technologies, headed by Dr Nel. The digital transformation of industries, known as Industry 4.0 has already started, and blockchain forms part of the digital revolution. The research areas include blockchain algorithms and data structures, blockchain security, blockchain applications and crypto assets.

With the recent high-profile killings of two whistleblowers in South Africa and with many other whistleblowers becoming victims of intimidation and violence to silence them after their identities were exposed, the researchers believe it is necessary to conduct research and develop a computer system to address the glaring shortcomings of current systems.

“Our research identified blockchain technology as a potential solution that meets these needs. Blockchain provides an immutable structure, supports non-repudiation, and grants accessibility to all stakeholders. It has the potential to provide a security-focused system that preserves the confidentiality and integrity of evidence. The system involves the anonymous registration of whistleblowers, the processing and storage of evidence, and the use of cryptography to ensure the privacy of messages,” says Krause. 

According to him, implementing this system in the real world, including the composition of the blockchain structure, seems daunting, especially regarding scalability and legal issues. With this project, he explains, they built a working blockchain system on a single computer. The project can be improved by expanding the blockchain system to multiple nodes communicating over a network. This improvement will take the Blockchain Whistleblower project from a concept to a valuable contribution to society.

How it works

“In a nutshell, this research has highlighted the potential of a blockchain-based whistleblower system to overcome the challenges surrounding corruption. It is a step forward in the fight against crime and the protection of those with the courage to expose misconduct. However, it is essential to continue with research and implementation to make this system a reality and fulfil its promise,” Dr Nel says.  

Traditionally, Krause explains, a central system is used where a single organisation controls the system. The potential danger is that the system provider becomes a single point of failure for the system and, thus, a target for cyberattacks. Another concern of a centralised system is the organisation’s ability to manipulate data and uncover the identities of whistleblowers. The integrity of the evidence can also be questioned when it is stored in a centralised database where modifications from a single point of access can affect all data.

A centralised system, therefore, would not be reliable enough for the high-risk circumstances of whistleblowers. They have concluded that a distributed or decentralised system would be an appropriate solution to the problem. A distributed system will continue to function as a whole even if a part is compromised.

The Blockchain Whistleblower System aims to make a proof-of-concept contribution to the field of blockchain technology. The system is installed locally on the user’s computer, where whistleblowers and investigators use an anonymous profile to interact with the system, which interacts with the blockchain. After signing in, users can choose to report a new incident or view messages on the blockchain.

Reporting a crime 

If the user wants to blow the whistle on a crime, the process starts with a report to gather more information about the incident. The whistleblower then selects the evidence of the crime on their computer. A hash function algorithm processes the evidence to create a fixed-length evidence hash. Hashing is a one-way cryptographic process that uniquely represents the input data. It is important to note that only the evidence hash is stored on the blockchain, not the evidence itself. The selected evidence is stored in a password-protected encrypted folder on the whistleblower’s computer. Investigators can later use this evidence hash to verify the integrity of the evidence when they eventually receive it.

What is next for this project? 

Krause says he would like to implement his project with nodes communicating via a network in the future. A network opens a new box of security considerations to explore and discover and would also enable the programme to be used at any location, making it accessible to whistleblowers everywhere.

“This project started with the idea to protect whistleblowers’ identities and provide a platform for them to contact investigators safely. The end goal is for the project to provide a platform where whistleblowers can anonymously report misconduct, safely communicate with investigators, and verify the integrity of their evidence.

“My hope for the project is to build a better South Africa by fighting corruption, one of the biggest obstacles to our country’s growth. By solving the many challenges whistleblowers encounter, I hope to foster a culture where whistleblowers are not afraid to speak out against crime.”

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