Seminole Tax Collector Joel Greenberg Starts Company to Move From Desktop to Blockchain and Virtual IDs – Orlando Sentinel

Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg has formed a private company as part of his government office’s plan to migrate information from driver’s licenses, property taxes and other functions to a database encrypted using state-of-the-art blockchain technology.

The company is located on the second floor of a Lake Mary office building connected to the tax collector’s office. Greenberg said he plans to use the blockchain-based technology in a pilot program to launch a digital ID program next year.

The unusual arrangement comes as the 34-year-old Republican filed his candidacy for re-election in 2020 this month, although he said in 2016 – before ousting longtime incumbent Ray Valdes – that he would serve a single term as a Seminole tax collector.

“We’re in the middle of some big projects, and I’d like to see them complete,” he said, referring to the blockchain project to explain why he decided to run again. “It’s taking a lot longer than I thought, and if I left it would mean stopping everything.”

The Florida Department of Revenue, which oversees the tax collector’s budget, did not respond to questions about whether Greenberg would set up a company to help launch a blockchain-based project in his government office.

In January 2018, the agency rejected a controversial plan by Greenberg to sell four tax collector branches for $13.2 million to a Winter Springs subsidiary of a Chicago real estate investment firm and use the money to buy several shopping centers in troubled areas.

The plan crushed by the tax agency called for the tax collector’s office to lease 80% to 90% of the mall’s space to commercial tenants and use the remaining space for driver’s license operations for residents of the Orange and Seminole counties.

Greenberg called his latest idea a “public-private partnership” within his office.

He said he then hopes to commercialize it and lease the blockchain-based system and virtual ID to other local governments across the country as a joint venture with other private companies.

According to state records, Government Blockchain Systems LLC was established on July 19. His office is in the tax collector’s administrative offices on the second floor of a four-story building.

“He is 100% owned by [Tax Collector’s] office,” Greenberg said.

Government Blockchain Systems’ registered agents are Greenberg and Samuel Armes, 22, a recent graduate of the University of South Florida and executive director of the Florida Blockchain Business Association.

Armes was hired by Greenberg in March to serve as the tax collector’s blockchain advocate and director of legislative affairs.

As part of the blockchain project, Greenberg’s office is planning a pilot project to build a digital ID system – or digital ID – for residents by compiling information from different state government agencies – including the permit of driving, voter registration, property records and motor vehicles.

The idea is to aggregate this information into a blockchain digital format that can only be accessed by a resident via their personal phone.

Greenberg gave the example of a young adult wanting to buy beer at a convenience store. Currently, the store clerk asks for a driver’s license to confirm the person’s age.

But a driver’s license contains information that is irrelevant to whether the person is at least 21 and legally able to buy alcohol, such as their address, signature and driving restrictions.

A digital ID, on the other hand, allows the person to share only their photo and date of birth, according to Greenberg.

“It’s a much better and more secure way to keep someone’s personal records,” Greenberg said of virtual ID through blockchain technology.

Blockchain is an online ledger or record of transactions distributed over a large network of computers. Because the data is encrypted and uses the processing power of many computers, each step of the transaction is stored in a “block” and is permanent and resistant to modification or fraud. The “blocks” are connected in a chain.

Greenberg pointed out that “right now each county has its own little system” that stores its data in its own computer systems, which makes it less secure and less accurate than a blockchain-based system.

Transactions through blockchain-based systems can also eliminate financial fees, proponents say, because transactions wouldn’t have to go through multiple banks or other financial institutions.

Blockchain is more commonly used to support online virtual currencies such as bitcoin. In June 2018, Greenberg’s office began accepting bitcoin as payment for new IDs, license plates, and property taxes.

Calling it the “wave of the future,” Greenberg said his office’s blockchain-based system and virtual ID should be operational by early 2020.

Technology “would be an asset of [Seminole] of the county,” Greenberg said. All revenue from government blockchain systems would flow to Seminole County, Greenberg said.

“It will be really badass,” Greenberg said of Seminole using the new technology.

Cragin Mosteller, director of external affairs for the Association of Florida Counties, said her organization was not aware of any other county governments forming a private corporation.

“It’s not something we could tell you because we don’t collect that kind of information,” she said.

Greenberg said he hopes to eventually bring Seminole County and the other county constitutional offices — including the sheriff, real estate appraiser, clerk of the courts and supervisor of elections — into the blockchain project.

“We hope to have all of this information aggregated in a blockchain where it is safe and cannot be changed and transparent,” Greenberg said. “It would be a lot harder for someone to hack into the system and tweak and change something – like driver’s licenses, voter ID.”

But county officials said they currently have no plans to use blockchain with the tax collector’s office.

“I am not aware of any plans at this time to leverage blockchain in county-supported systems,” said James Garoutsos, Seminole’s chief information officer, in response to an email from the Sentinel to the county manager’s office.

At a March 5 retreat attended by Seminole leaders and staff — including Garoutsos — commissioners Amy Lockhart and Brenda Carey discussed the county studying the use of blockchain-based technology after Greenberg first proposed to use it for the tax collector’s office. Carey suggested the county wait to see how well it works for the tax collector’s office before moving forward.

Likewise, a spokesperson for Sheriff Dennis Lemma said they should investigate blockchain further.

“Modernization is certainly a good thing, and it is [Lemma] certainly interested in the concept of digital ID,” spokesman Bob Kealing said. “But it’s really more of a research phase for him [Lemma].”

Seminole Commissioner Lee Constantine said he had not heard of Greenberg’s plans for blockchain-based technology and the virtual ID system.

Greenberg formed the company two months after Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Florida Blockchain Bill. The legislation created a task force within the state Department of Financial Services to study how local governments can benefit from transitioning to and using blockchain-based systems for record keeping, transactions finance and data security.

Greenberg said governments transitioning to blockchain-based technology is “the next big step.”

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“Ultimately, this will reduce government costs and improve efficiency,” he said.

As Greenberg prepares for his re-election campaign, he can expect some opposition.

Brittany Nethers, chairwoman of the Seminole County Democratic Party, said her party plans to announce a tax collector candidate in the coming weeks.

“We’re very excited because we know this person will be much better for this office than Joel Greenberg,” Nethers said.

Unlike in 2016, Greenberg hasn’t pledged to seek a third term if he wins again in 2020. But he said he doesn’t think that will happen.

“I highly doubt that I would seek a third term. Eventually, later on, I will seek a higher position,” he said, without giving any hints as to what that might be.

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Esther L. Steinbach