In some counties across Wyoming, land records are still in paper form, filed in pewter and army green cabinets in county courthouses. The record of transactions for Wyoming dirt is gradually being put into computer databases by county clerks to more easily track and research land ownership.
But, in one unique case, those records could be thrust further into the digital age with blockchain.
Medici Land Governance, a land administration-focused subsidiary of Overstock.com, has signed an agreement with Teton County to create a blockchain-based records keeping system.
Teton County’s clerk’s office will continue to keep track the way it currently does in paper and on a computer database. But the company will utilize Teton’s data to build a pilot platform to track and verify those records.
“From my infant understanding of it, this is the wave of the future,” said Sherry Daigle, Teton County clerk, comparing blockchain record keeping now to the obsolete email servers that predate Google. “I don’t know how quickly that future will happen. I don’t know how intricate this works, but the idea behind it is to make records more transparent.”
Blockchain was a buzzword in Wyoming’s legislature at the start of the year, and the emerging technology has swept more than one cowboy off his feet in the state since, from a wedding of blockchain and cattle records in northeast Wyoming to potential banking statute changes to allow blockchain companies to do business in Wyoming they can’t achieve anywhere else.
Blockchain also has its fair share of critics and skeptics.
The technology has somewhat of a bad reputation, linked to nefarious players and get-rich-quick schemes. Its best known iteration is the cryptocurrency Bitcoin — known largely, and not completely unfairly, as internet money generated by people racing to create new coin, via a series of computers set up in their garages or basements.
But essentially, proponents say, blockchain is a game changer for securing information in the digital age and its potential uses are endless.
Blockchain is a digital ledger book, or rather thousands of identical ledger books housed in computers across the system. Any transaction has to be verified as legitimate simultaneously by hundreds or thousands of ledgers.
Once verified, the books are updated across the entire system. So, rather than one entity controlling what goes on that list and what is erased, like the employees at a bank or a county clerk’s office, the system is spread out, adding layers of verification that are hard to forge or hack.
Right now a government document is verified with the signature of an official, like a county clerk. What blockchain does is place a digital signature on records — one whose veracity is tracked and maintained across the blockchain.
“Of course blockchain has this mystique around it, and in truth it’s just a high-end ledger system,” said Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devil’s Tower.
Driskill is the co-chair of the Wyoming Blockchain Task Force, the group that’s pushing for Wyoming to open its arms to blockchain companies before it’s beat to the punch by other states.
For Driskill, Wyoming’s approach to blockchain should be an example for how the state diversifies its economy and brings in new business. Decades of work and millions in public funds have gone toward solving that troubling challenge, but the state hasn’t succeeded in strengthening its economy when compared to its neighboring states, he said.
“On paper we have the best environment for business,” he said of Wyoming’s political and economic benefits for business, like low taxes. “That tells me we may have won the paper game … In the real word we are not acing the test.”
Blockchain is emerging and it’s growing. If Wyoming can be ahead of that game, then it’s learning how to draw in businesses by figuring out what those industries are facing and eliminating impediments to them locating in Wyoming, he said.
The land records pilot program in Teton County is just the beginning of record keeping that could benefit from blockchain in the state, he said. A more arduous task than tracking the history of ownership of Wyoming dirt is tracking the records of what lies beneath it: minerals.
“As you move into minerals, the blockchain becomes absolutely critical,” Driskill said. “People spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to research mineral deeds.”
Driskill has not proposed a specific bill in regard to mineral records and blockchain. The idea is one that came out of lawmakers’ many meetings with companies like Medici Land Governance.
The move toward blockchain may come with trade-offs or setbacks, Driskill said. Take the mineral or land records change, he said. It would cut out important income that counties receive for records and revenue for title companies that were created to track and dole out that data for a fee.
“There’s some really neat things with it,” Driskill said of blockchain. “There’s some hard questions with it.”
Teton County has already placed its land records going back to 1996 — when the county started using a state identification number rather than a descriptor to track parcels — on a computer database. For that county, blockchain is the logical next step.
“I think we should look at it cautiously,” Daigle, the county clerk, said of the hubbub surrounding blockchain. “That’s why we’re doing this project as sort of a backup to my processes now. So that if it does fail — which I hope it doesn’t fail — I have plan B going on.”
Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner