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First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a certificate in a blockchain carriage. Well, a digital block to be more exact.
At least that’s how the classic song has played out in Washoe for the better part of 2018 as the Nevada county started using blockchain technology — a nigh tamper-proof digital ledger for securing information — to create digital versions of its marriage licenses for hundreds of couples.
The initiative, which traces its roots from Austin, Texas, to downtown Reno and even all the way up the Mt. Rose ski lodge, issued its first digital marriage license in April.
It officially came out of its pilot phase sometime in June, according to Washoe County, allowing anyone who ties the knot in the area to view and send a secure digital version of their marriage license via their home computer or even their smartphone.
After serving about 950 customers by early December, the success of the digital marriage license program is causing the county to look at other ways that it could use blockchain technology with other records.
Washoe is not alone.
Elko County recently started a trial phase for using blockchain technology to create certified digital copies of birth certificates.
Titan Seal, the San Francisco-based company that Washoe contracted for its digital marriage certificates, says it is close to finalizing a deal with one of the largest counties in the country to use blockchain for its real estate records. It is also actively looking for a DMV partner in the country to potentially create a digital driver’s license that is certified through blockchain technology, said Phil Dhingra, Titan Seal co-founder and product head.
Titan Seal uses the Ethereum blockchain, which is one of the more established blockchain platforms in use. That means the company’s platform is hard to hack because of the resources and sheer computing power such a move would require.
“Currently, we estimate that about $2 billion documents per year in the United States get a certificate or embossed seal of some kind that’s paper-based,” Dhingra said. “We believe that (digital certificates) should at least match the paper number if not exceed that.”
Biggest little match
While no marriage is perfect, the joining of digital marriage licenses and Washoe County is one union that was apparently meant to be, according to proponents.
“Reno, historically, has seen a lot of people come to get married here,” said Hunter Halcomb, a department systems technician with Washoe County. “So we send a high number of certificates out of state.”
The wheels for Washoe’s push toward providing digital certificates in addition to traditional paper records started turning in February when Titan Seal’s Dhingra attended a blockchain conference held at the Nevada Museum of Art in downtown Reno.
Dhingra, who just moved to Reno from Austin at the time, says he sat at a table with several Washoe County officials and started socializing with them.
About three weeks later, he bumped into Washoe County Recorder Lawrence Burtness at Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe, who he recognized from the conference. This led to a few meetings and Washoe eventually decided to give the Titan Seal’s technology a shot.
“April 10th was the first time a person got (a digital marriage license from Washoe County),” Dhingra said. “The person had no idea that it was part of a pilot program.”
These days, everyone who gets a paper marriage certificate from Washoe also gets a certified digital copy of their marriage license included. Citing state law, the county says it is not able to charge separately for a certified digital copy of a marriage license.
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Most of the positive feedback about the digital marriage licenses come from how fast they can be ready. Instead of having to wait seven to 10 business days, the digital marriage license can be e-mailed to a customer in less than 24 hours, Dhingra said.
Convenience was also another factor cited by customers who like the digital certificates.
“Unlike a paper copy that you might have to turn over to somebody, you only have to buy the digital copy once and use it as many times as you like,” Halcomb said.
As with any new disruptive development, digital marriage certificates face their share of challenges. One is acceptance, particularly from folks who are technology-averse.
“We have to get people’s email address and explain the process when we tell them that they can get a digital copy as well,” Halcomb said. “But some people say, ‘Nah, I don’t use email so I don’t want it.”
Others, meanwhile, do not understand that they can’t simply print the digital copy and then use it like a regular paper certificate. Since the blockchain acts like a digital ledger, it needs to be used in digital form in order for it to be secure.
In some cases, the pushback does not come from customers but from other agencies.
Halcomb estimates the acceptance rate for the documents by agencies they have dealt with is around 65 percent. While institutions like the Social Security Administration are good at accepting digital certificates, agencies like DMVs can vary with acceptance.
Nevada DMV would not fully commit to accepting the digital certificates, though some customers have had luck using the digital marriage licenses in places like Pahrump. DMV offices in other states can also show mixed results.
“DMVs in border states are our biggest issue because they actually see cases of marriage certificate fraud,” Halcomb said. “The idea of a PDF marriage certificate really disturbs them and we haven’t been able to convince the administrators of any of these DMVs that the (digital certificates) are actually more secure than the paper ones.”
Despite the challenges, Washoe County is moving forward with more applications for digitizing paper records. One project the county is looking at using blockchain technology for a potential digital record recovery system in case of a disaster.
Dhingra, who has since moved to San Francisco from Reno, sees such moves as the natural evolution of record keeping, especially as blockchain technology gains more acceptance.
Even banks are now seriously looking into using blockchain technology for clearing and settlement transactions, which typically involve the exchange of money and securities.
“Once something is set in a blockchain, it’s actually better than being set in stone,” Dhingra said. “Even if the entire Internet disappears, a copy of the Ethereum blockchain will exist in a computer somewhere. Some random computer somewhere can have a copy of the blockchain.”
Jason Hidalgo covers business, technology and gaming for the Reno Gazette-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo. Support local journalism: RGJ digital subscription.
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