Securing Blockchain and The Applications of the Future

By Paula Reinman
Coauthored by Salman Baset

From the first work conducted by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta in 1991 to its entry into the popular lexicon in 2014, blockchain has grown into a young distributed database technology that has the potential to secure and improve transactions from medical records to food delivery to our own personal identity.

As is the case with many new, life-changing technologies, a Marconi Society Young Scholar has a leadership role in defining and applying the new rules. Salman Baset, CTO Security for IBM Blockchain Solutions, was recognized as a Young Scholar in 2008 and has been doing amazing work ever since.

Salman talked with me about blockchain and its potential impact, his focus from a security perspective and how he came to this unique position.

For a technical description of blockchain and its history, click on the Wikipedia definition.

 

Since blockchain is a relatively new concept, let’s start with an overview of who’s using it and why.

SB: Simply put, blockchain is a way to record transactions in a digital ledger. Just as the Internet lets people communicate, blockchain is a peer-to-peer network, sitting on top of the Internet, that lets individuals or organizations to conduct transactions in areas ranging from safe food delivery to global trade and finance to healthcare.

The major applications right now are in cryptocurrencies and in transactions between mutually distrusting parties. To understand the latter, consider this food safety example.

The food industry is concerned with quickly and precisely identifying the sources of foodborne illnesses for effective recalls and to tackle the cost of food waste. Food waste and inefficient recalls cost hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Between the time a crop is harvested by a farmer to the time it ends up at a retailer, several parties including local brokers, truckers, shippers and custom officials have been involved . One would think that it is simply a matter of digitizing the entire food supply chain and making it public. While digitization is needed, making the entire supply chain public has implications for the business models in food delivery all over the world. For example, a farmer may be targeted by criminals if they learned about a bumper food harvest. So how do we collect the information needed for effective food recalls without making the entire supply chain public?

That’s where the blockchain comes in picture. Blockchain uses a shared ledger so that all parties (farmers, local brokers, shippers, truckers) involved in this transaction can interact. It lets parties agree on key transfers and changes in ownership as a crop travels from a farm to a retailer. It establishes trust between mutually distrusting parties, minimizes or eliminates disputes and provides visibility into supply chains. All information is kept on a permissioned ledger that only relevant parties can access.

We must recognize, though, that we are in the very early days of blockchain. While IBM Research has done fundamental work in blockchain consensus protocols and, of course, in crypto algorithms, IBM became involved in the space in 2015 with the establishment of the Hyperledger project under the Linux Foundation, creating prototypes in 2016, and implementing full-blown blockchain solutions this year. The solutions and applications may look much different in five to ten years.

 

Coming back to your mention of cryptocurrencies as an early blockchain application, are bitcoin and blockchain synonomous?

SB: They are not the same thing. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency that can be implemented using blockchain. There are a couple of key areas where bitcoin is different from blockchain.

Bitcoin uses a public blockchain. This means that bitcoin is an open and non-permissioned network, accessible to anyone who has bitcoin or wants to participate in bitcoin payments. Blockchain networks can be public or permissioned – permissioned blockchains are limited to a set of participants mimicking business relationships and thus only available to those participating in specific transactions.

Also, bitcoin shares only information about bitcoin transactions, whereas blockchain applications can share all kinds of information, including goods bought, sold and moved and financial transactions initiated, completed and cleared.

 

Although blockchains are secure by design, I know there are a lot of potential security concerns. What do you focus on as CTO Security for an organization serving some of IBM’s largest customers?

SB: I concentrate on security from a blockchain, as well as a non-blockchain, perspective. By design, blockchain creates a shared and permanent record of transactions across involved parties. Thus, it is not expected that one would store sensitive information such as social security numbers or personally identifiable information (PII) on the blockchain. At the same time, information such as change in ownership or consent to information can potentially be recorded on blockchain. I spend a lot of time with customers and prospects to understand how they plan to use blockchain, make them aware of the potential security and data privacy issues in permissioned or public blockchains, and developing the governance of permissioned blockchains. I am also developing security best practices focused on the concerns that are unique to blockchain.

 

What about your background that made you the right fit for this job?

SB: Prior to this, I was in IBM Research focusing on security and performance issues in cloud. On the security side, my work included developing a novel language for validating application configurations to meet security and compliance needs (part of IBM Vulnerability Advisor service), identifying potentially vulnerable libraries in mobile applications without access to source code, being security architect of first generation IBM Container Cloud service, and building a patch management for IBM Enterprise Cloud. On the performance side, I led a consortium of cloud, hardware and software companies in Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC) in a multi-year effort to develop a first industry standard cloud benchmark for measuring cloud scalability and elasticity. My background in building peer-to-peer communications systems, including my dissertation work, and cloud systems for research and production with a focus on security led IBM to ask me to take on my current position of leading security for blockchain solutions that we build for our biggest customers.

 

As an underlying technology, blockchain can potentially impact many aspects of our lives. What are some of the key developments that you are watching?

SB: There are a number of very interesting implications of the technology.

  • Digital identity: 1.1B people live without an officially recognized identity.   One of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development goals is to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration since many children in emerging countries have no official identification until they get their first vaccination. In developed countries, sharing identity information in a privacy-preserving way is of key concern. I represent IBM in external efforts to coalesce around an industry point of view on identity.
  • Smart Contracts: Blockchain allows organizations to write smart contracts, which will replace today’s paper-based contracts. Machines will execute these new contracts. These smart contracts need to be written correctly and executed flawlessly. The flawless execution is important to avoid potential double spending problem, where an account may potentially be debited twice for the same payment. Designing provably correct smart contracts and executing them across a wide-range of industries will likely be a major area of research and development in the coming years.
  • Governance: We need policies and governance structure to clarify who operates blockchain – especially permissioned blockchain – and what happens when something goes wrong. For example, a farmer may not be expected to have a computing infrastructure for maintaining a distributed ledger, but a large retailer will likely want to have such infrastructure. How does a farmer post his or her crop data on blockchain, potentially through intermediaries, to enable retailers for potential recalls? Similarly, how can banks participating in a blockchain network for financial transactions deploy and test a smart contract when it goes into production? And what happens when the smart contract does not behave correctly?

While we do not know what tomorrow’s blockchain applications and solutions will look like, we think it’s a pretty good bet that Salman Baset will have influenced those outcomes on a global level.

 

To learn more about blockchain:

The Truth About Blockchain, Harvard Business Review, January, 2017

What is Blockchain and Why is it Growing in Popularity, Ars Technica, November 16, 2016

Blockchain: The Invisible Technology That’s Changing the World, PC Magazine, February 6, 2017

The Internet’s Next Frontier: Getting Better at Getting Better Together

By Paula Reinman
Coauthored by Mei Lin Fung

Mei Lin Fung’s work is defined by her heritage, starting with her great-great grandfather who escaped famine in China by accepting indentured servitude in return for his passage British Guyana in South America. A self-made man who invested in education, he sent his grandson, Mei Lin’s grandfather Samuel, to study law in London. Samuel Fung became a respected member of the community in Singapore in World War II until he was unjustly “fingered” as an enemy collaborator and, in his innocent belief in the rule of law, bicycled to a scheduled appointment and was never seen again. Her mother was the first local woman to become a Medical Social Worker and spoke about how sad and silly it was to send hospital patients back to the very conditions that made them sick in the first place.

This family background gave Mei Lin her vision for the future and her passion for ensuring that the institutions around us earn our trust and keep that trust with by putting humanity first.

Mei Lin focuses on ensuring that the Internet, potentially the most disruptive tool since the printing press, is used to empower, enlighten and uplift people around the world.

Humanity faces a fork in the road and Mei Lin, along with Marconi Society Chair and Fellow Vint Cerf, are working together to achieve a People Centered Internet (PCI) where each human being can harness the Internet to realize her or his potential so that all have the opportunity to “Connect to Thrive.”

Mei Lin was gracious enough to some questions about her work at PCI and beyond.

Q.  There are lots of digital inclusion projects out there. How is PCI different and additive?

A.  When we think about digital inclusion, many of us think about putting the power of technology – the ability to learn, to connect with others and to contribute from wherever we are – into the hands of the half of the world that currently has no access. Those may be people in rural or developing areas that have no service, they may be people who cannot afford access or people who, based on their ethnicity, gender, income or other demographics have few or no opportunities for technical education.

Many digital inclusion projects are doing tremendous work in specific countries and in one or more focus areas. A few of the more broadly based are Alliance for an Affordable Internet (A4AI), the World Economic Forum Internet for All (I4A) initiative, the Internet Society and the IEEE Internet Initiative.

PCI is not a digital inclusion project. We weave into the waves of change the essential need to use the Internet to strengthen the human fabric. As we who have benefited know, the Internet can be a force for good. But only if we relate it to the aspirations, imaginations, cultures, hopes and dreams of people who may be very different from us. If we are to have an Internet of the people, by the people and for the people, that Internet must also provide pathways for ordinary people to be involved in substantive ways to shape the future Internet.

PCI’s Model for Keeping the Focus on People

Traditional approaches to working together in a network to achieve goals beyond individual and institutional agendas are faltering and being re-thought in the age of the Internet. PCI asks policy makers and technologists: How can we harness the Internet to track pipelines of Internet projects so funding delivers real outcomes?

A.  How does PCI envision the coordination of effort and funding so that people can connect to thrive?

A.  Culture takes years to change – institutions are resistant to new ideas. The Federal Health Futures Group, which I was part of and which spawned PCI, drew leaders spanning public and private boundaries. They recognized a unique opportunity to use connectivity to improve health and thriving by finding new ways to harness the emerging community networks. Looking out to 2045, they saw shared common aspirations and wondered how to achieve them.

The Federal Health Futures built on the learnings of the US Air Force Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop: Fast flying aircraft require adaptive response to the environment and the decisions and actions of other aircraft in the air, whether friend or foe. By using this feedback loop repeatedly, multiple participants could coordinate to get closer to goal.

Within a network where information is routed at the speed of light, where more information than one human brain can process arrives, where effective decisions with long-term implications must consider hundreds or even thousands of factors, only technology can handle the processing and relevant and timely presentation to people, so they can decide and act in service to higher goals.

A key outcome of the Federal Health Futures initiative is a strategic, operational and tactical feedback loop that coordinates action and information together in a network. The Triple Feedback Loop offers a compass by aligning the information flows in a framework for operating a network of disparate players with different goals who work together on an overarching goal. Dr. Douglas Engelbart is known for inventing the computer mouse. His greater insight was the concept of Networked Improvement Communities, where coordination and collaboration do not require knowledge by everyone of everything all the time. Overlapping interoperating actions, processes and strategies can be coordinated where multiple independently operating players are involved concurrently. This network sets up the best conditions for human insight and judgment to be developed, asserted, tested and validated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The design and ongoing oversight of complex systems requires human judgment to assure that the technology serves the humans and is not hijacked by players with aims which would sacrifice the whole of humanity to achieve shorter term, individual or tribal objectives like power, influence and wealth.

Q.  How are you approaching this problem? What are your key strategies and top priorities?

A.  We must learn to get better at getting better together. Our institutions have grown in a “top down” world that has developed over millennia. When things go wrong, we instinctively look to an authority figure to tell us what to do. When we try to collaborate, someone often steps up and says, “let’s do it my way.” Network capability exists now but in general, we do not yet know how to take advantage of it. After reading and writing were invented it took centuries before universal education became a priority. Breakthroughs can emerge from the most unlikely places. Internet inclusion can unleash new frontiers of innovation by teams of unlikely people.

PCI’s strategy is for people to work in learning networks of communities where people learn from others to improve their own communities. Breakthroughs by any one community or team or person can spread rapidly across the network and be adapted to the local situation, by local people who then contribute back their learnings.

It is a very different way to work and interact – we leap off the 2-dimensional hierarchy and take advantage of the power of a network to track, to learn and build capability. We must develop trust and learn to listen and think adaptively. We can set goals as a network and work together as a network to realize them. We can learn faster.

In the Federal Health Futures initiative, we realized that the power of networks was the most effective for getting better health at lower costs. Dr. Jonathan Woodson, Undersecretary for Heath Affairs at the US Dept. of Defense, convened a multi-stakeholder summit over two days with federal health leaders, jointly with his counterpart Dr. Howard Koh at the Dept. of Health and Human Services in September, 2012. We examined what was stopping progress and where breakthroughs had occurred. Both Dr. Woodson and Dr. Koh said that this came down to leadership.

Interagency Leadership Competency Inventory

We needed new competencies for leaders operating in a networked world. Our discussions surfaced 163 leadership behaviors that were not currently recognized as needed, and were not being learned or actively practiced amongst federal health leaders. These were distilled into the diagram of 13 competencies above.

Our priority at PCI is to connect digital inclusion projects within networks of improvement communities so we can achieve our overarching goals together, and to use our technological tools to augment our human capabilities to work together better.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide the set of overarching goals approved by over 190 countries. Coordinating and collaborating to achieve these provides clear direction to technology companies, digital inclusion proponents, actors and change agents to look for shared Sustainable Development Goals in common.

Q.  What can readers can do now to help solve the problem of digital inclusion in a people-centered way?

A.  The original Olympics in Greece brought the best athletes together for the few months of training and preparation before the finals were run. For many it was the first time that they had been out of their village or met others from far away. It was intended as a move towards a more peaceful Greece to offer other competitions that did not involve war to be a winner.

When they returned the Olympians became the leaders in their community – the first who had experience interaction with those far away, that had travelled further than any other in the village.

We are now at the digital frontier.  Marconi Society Fellows, Young Scholars and supporters, like members of other science and technology associations, are leaders in a position to help the communities they are part of to improve the lives of others in their communities and to inspire the young people to take advantage of the opportunities in the digital frontier. We must also help protect our communities from the dangers and risks of being on this new frontier.

  • Consider digital inclusion in your own life. Look at what you are doing today and consider whether the human systems you are part of – at work, at home and at play – are operating in a networked way that can take advantage of digital tools to improve our lives and the lives of the vulnerable and underserved. Use the insights you, as leaders in our networked world, gain to steward your community as the people you care about move into the digital frontier. Look for ways to expand opportunities for your community by connecting networks who could discover synergy from joint activities.
  • Push for more people-centered approaches. Think about the risks and dangers of digital technology and the Internet and, in your own sphere of influence. drive for more resilient communities and organizations that operate in a people-centered manner.

The power of digital technologies can be used for good and for bad. We can harness technology to benefit humanity, or passively watch technology spreading like wildfire. It will take all of us to work to assure digital inclusion provides opportunity for all, and to minimize the risks to all by setting up the new institutions and oversights that will be needed. To do this, we have to get better at working with each other.

Learn more about people-centric concepts and the People Centered Internet:

New York Times – How the Internet Is Saving Culture, Not Killing It

Devex – Vint Cerf: Google’s internet evangelist on the next steps in connectivity

The Economist – The Dawn of Artificial Intelligence

Stanford Engineering and Computer Science – The Internet: Bringing people together virtually or pushing them away physically?

How the Wireless Revolution Will Make a Better World

By Paula Reinman
Co-authored by Marty Cooper

44 years ago this month, cell phone pioneer and 2013 Marconi Fellow, Marty Cooper, made the world’s first call from a mobile phone and fundamentally changed the way we communicate by recognizing that people call people, rather than places.

Like many good things, this call and the device from which it was placed originated from conflict. While some viewed the end of the copper wire, or the place, as the destination for people’s calls, Marty realized that people are inherently mobile and that they want to talk to each other without the constraints of wires or location.

Even though there are nearly 5B mobile phones in use today, the industry is still quite young. The first commercial mobile service was launched in 1983, but cellular did not become widely used until 2000. While wireless conjures up images of incessantly texting millennials or tuned out pedestrians walking in front of buses, talking and texting are conveniences, not life-changers.

According to Cooper, “The technology – the networks, devices and intelligence – is here now to stimulate several revolutions based upon applications that fundamentally improve lives and change societal economics. That’s what I’m most excited about.”

Changing Healthcare from Reactive to Proactive

Today, we have a highly reactive health care system. We experience symptoms; they are diagnosed and treated, typically after the problem has set in.

“We’re heading for a world in which wearables, powered by wireless technology, can monitor what’s happening in our bodies on a minute by minute basis, rather than only during an annual exam or an emergency room visit,” says Cooper. “With constant and unobtrusive monitoring, we can sense the outset of a disease, rather than the occurrence, and actually stop the disease from happening.”

We see this in action today with sensors worn by people who are subject to congestive heart failure. These sensors can tell if the heart is accumulating fluid ten hours before a heart attack will happen, allowing time to get treatment and preventing the attack from happening.

Leveraging the Teachable Moment

As we understand more about the human brain and how people learn, we know that much of our education happens outside the classroom and beyond traditional subject silos. In fact, learning is a 24/7 experience, requiring reliable and affordable wireless technology.

Cooper points out, “Research concludes that people who exercise their learning skills never lose those skills. Conversely, people who stop learning lose the ability to learn, irrecoverably. Einstein, for example, had the learning ability of an eight year-old into his eighties. We need to make learning fun and accessible for everyone.”

One example of a new learning experience, powered by wireless and driving huge improvements in math and English outcomes, is the flipped classroom, where learning happens outside the classroom and class time is dedicated to group projects, labs, discussion and projects.

Increasing Overall Wealth Through Collaboration

“New forms of collaboration have the potential to multiply the productivity of every working human by 3, 5 or 10 times,” Cooper believes. “Only the wealth created by that explosion of productivity can solve the biggest problem in the world today, that of poverty. Redistribution of wealth cannot eliminate poverty.”

Collaboration is the most important application of wireless technology because it allows people to work together 24/7 from wherever they are – and to improve productivity by orders of magnitude.

While today’s collaboration relies on fragmented tools and serendipity, collaboration done right will leverage AI and machine learning to get each person’s ideas to the right people and places for input and insights that take the idea to the next level. Our chat rooms, social media interactions and corporate collaboration tools are all early experiments in social intercourse that will evolve into very efficient tools to facilitate the exchange of ideas and thoughtful, challenging interactions.

Building with Social Good in Mind

The technology, vision and capital are there to make these wireless revolutions happen but we only see value as a society if everyone benefits. While falling costs are a key component of technology-driven applications, the systems and philosophies to make this technology widely available need to be baked into these revolutions.

Cooper suggests a few efforts to watch and engage with to ensure universal accessibility and an approach that focuses on helping people attain their goals, rather than on pure technology.  He welcomes ideas about other groups that share common goals:

  • Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution — set up by the World Economic Forum and supported by inaugural partners including Salesforce, Kaiser Permanente, IDEO and Huawei, the Center will convene start-ups, venture capitalists, the world’s leading companies, experts, academics, NGOs and governments to discuss how science and technology policies can benefit all in society.
  • People Centered Internet — led by Marconi Society Chair and Fellow, Vint Cerf, this organization is working with the IEEE, World Bank, Internet Society, World Economic Forum and others to ensure a people and community first approach to connecting the half of the world’s population that does not today have access to the Internet.
  • Tendrel — a global network for social entrepreneurs, led by executives from Camfed, Teach for All, Center for Digital Inclusion and others, designed to build the underlying advocacy infrastructure necessary for social change.

“It is unacceptable that some parts of our society live longer and more healthful lives while others experience no benefits from new technology. Wireless is poised to make a difference in the lives of people across the planet and I can’t wait to see how it helps others,” says the father of the cell phone.

Starving in the Land of Plenty: The True Story of Consumer Bandwidth

By John Cioffi
Co-authored by Hatti Hamlin

Why is it that we’re surrounded by bandwidth – with a few gigabits per second going through our bodies at any one time between cell, Wi-Fi, and TV services – and yet we have trouble streaming an HD movie or watching the Super Bowl from our computers?

The reason is that our hot spots are white hot, but we can only access a fraction of the available bandwidth. Despite the long-running argument over net neutrality, what will really benefit consumers the most is “net vitality.” And Software Defined Networks (SDNs) will deliver that vitality, even as they upend the conventional telecoms/ ISPs and change the balance of power in providing consumer connectivity. As networks are transformed into giant computers, it will be easier to spontaneously provision a service for a specific application by grabbing bandwidth wherever it’s available.

In fact, the power is shifting to virtual network operators, who, if the network is open enough, will be able to instantaneously provide service based on the bandwidth and quality the user’s application requires. The problem has not been a lack of bandwidth, but a lack of access to the bandwidth around each of us. We’re starving in the land of plenty and SDNs will change that.

What does this mean for consumers?

  • Opportunities will expand for content and application providers (CAPs) as they leverage the virtualized and dynamic on-demand infrastructure offered by network providers.
  • That’s likely to also mean falling prices for bandwidth as network providers compete to have their services selected by the CAP players—who may grab bandwidth from many different sources to serve up content. Rather than settling for commodity status, there will be an opportunity for enterprising and agile network providers to use SDNs to deliver on fair terms the right bandwidth for the consumer-preferred applications to the CAP players.
  • Once consumers can use the available bandwidth all around them, the focus on network neutrality will give way to a focus on net vitality as bandwidth costs get packaged with application and content services—everything from entertainment (Netflix / Amazon), and video (You Tube), to work-from-home/small business services, wearable-oriented services such as health sensors, and many IoT applications. For example, using SDN, an Apple application could switch between AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint to provide seamless service for music and entertainment, because consumers care only about the quality and consistency of the service, not who delivers it. Because previously fenced-off bandwidth will be available through SDNs, speeds will increase as software fixes problems or switches among providers seamlessly. The entire Internet could and perhaps should be available to tap.

This emerging story makes the issue of net neutrality almost academic; net vitality, delivered with emerging SDN technology, is the future of broadband.