Is Blockchain Ready for Prime Time?
The powerful digital tool offers capabilities to the military and government, but it needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Blockchain, the digital ledger technology, offers an immutable record of a transaction based on a distributed consensus algorithm. The technology gained notoriety through the use of bitcoin, the digital commodity. However, experts say that the blockchain technology has moved well beyond its initial underpinning role. “Bitcoin is basically like the Model T of blockchain technology, because it was the first one,” says Lee McKnight, associate professor, School of Information Studies, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. “There’ve been many more applications of blockchain since then, and most all of them are better.”
Admittedly, the initial hype and confusion surrounding blockchain has been dramatic, with the technology being referred to as “magical” or “the most disruptive technology since the Internet,” according to TechCrunch.com. Nonetheless, the current state of the technology is about employing the tool effectively, improving its interoperability and pairing it with other advancing capabilities such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things, the professor reasons.
“It’s reminiscent of any new wave of technology where, in the first years, there’s a lot of churn and a lot of stupid things done that people will be embarrassed to admit they thought were a good idea in a couple of years,” McKnight shares. “But over time, the focus is going to be more and more on managing blockchains and using it like one more essential back office tool to lower the costs of implementing systems.”
Dylan Yaga, a computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and a specialist in blockchain, also sees the technology progressing. “Several years ago, things were not quite as nice and user friendly as they are nowadays,” he says. “It was hard to get blockchain systems up and running. Since they’re always evolving, they’re getting better and better, in my opinion, [and] are more user friendly and ready for prime time essentially.”
For the U.S. military and government, blockchain offers expanding capabilities for secure transactions. “The key aspect of blockchain is that it creates an immutable, unchangeable, permanently verifiable record of a transaction,” McKnight explains. “And it does this with a sort of self-executing computational cryptographic proof that a transaction is valid.”
The validation comes through a process involving so-called endorsing parties participating in a transaction that is recorded digitally as a block or group of records. The block and data are linked mathematically to other blocks. The digital ledgers of transactions are tamper resistant and tamper evident, Yaga states.
All of that is possible because the record is a decentralized ledger, McKnight continues. “If there was an attack on one of the blocks, even with its strong encryption, that would look to the other parties like a corrupted file or record or bad data, and it would be removed. It would not succeed as an attack—like what is possible if you don’t have that layer of blockchain technology.”
Each blockchain includes an executable software program code called a smart contract that sets the terms of the transaction and validation, he states. “This is all done automatically, with strong cryptographic proof. As a user, you don’t have to do anything,” McKnight says.
The digital ledger ensures that users can only transact with the assets or information to which they have been assigned within the blockchain, and this compartmentalizes or limits their interaction, Yaga offers.
Blockchain applications do not work, however, if the parties to the transaction are not on equal footing. It is called the 51 percent attack, the professor says, and it is one of the key weaknesses of the technology. “A decentralized distributed ledger that automatically verifies that this is all trustworthy only works as long as it’s truly decentralized,” McKnight notes. “But if one party actually controls more than 51 percent of the mechanisms for this verification, then they can basically lie … and degrade other people’s holdings.”
Although blockchains can be used in some hierarchical atmospheres, Yaga confirms that they work best in equal relationships. “For me, it’s tricky to envision some government agencies using blockchain, if they have more of a client/server type approach where the government institution provides some services for people, and there’s not that peer-to-peer type relationship between them,” the computer scientist reasons.
The experts identify two main open source platforms commonly used for enterprise blockchain implementation: Hyperledger and Ethereum. The prevailing Hyperledger was released in 2015 by the Linux Foundation, with IBM a key backer in contributing patented blockchain infrastructure, as well as input from Microsoft, RedHat, VMware and other companies.
McKnight is a little more reticent about Ethereum. While it is important because it includes the smart contract concept, which its coders broke out from the bitcoin technology, the platform’s verification system is lacking, he suggests. The flaw in the system was exploited, resulting in the reported theft of $50 million of the digital commodity, Ether. “They foolishly followed the same proof of work method for verification that bitcoin used,” McKnight opines.
The company is attempting “a hard fork,” or fundamentally changing the code for the blockchain platform to provide an improved and updated verification process. Essentially, they are trying to become more like the market leader, Hyperledger, the professor states.
Even so, McKnight does use Ethereum in the classroom because it offers a starting point to understand blockchain applications. “It is actually what I show in my classes,” he notes. “I’m the first person teaching blockchain management, I think, in the world. And I start with teaching my students Ethereum because there are books available on it, and it’s a little easier to learn. After they know a little bit, then I have them go to Hyperledger, which is a little more complicated.”
Yaga, who agrees that Ethereum is a more understandable blockchain, also ran afoul of the platform but for a different reason: its reputation as a cryptocurrency. “Right now, a lot of IT [information technology] people in the government will just flat-out block anything that’s cryptocurrency related,” Yaga shares. “You say, ‘I want to run some of these Ethereum nodes,’ and they just sort of look at you like, ‘Isn’t that cryptocurrency? Are you going to do something illegal with it?’ ‘No, it’s just for research,’ we tell them. We ultimately ended up making a lab [a blockchain laboratory] at NIST, and it runs existing off-the-shelf blockchain systems that we purposefully broke from their main systems.”
In addition to industry ventures in blockchain, McKnight is seeing military applications of blockchain, centering around information assurance. This includes an Army application of blockchain for medical evacuations. “It’s for getting somebody that is hurt out of Afghanistan or another conflict zone,” the professor states. “And it is to improve the timing and process of coordinating the various parties around the hurt soldier as quickly as possible.”
The professor ventures that blockchain, when paired with other technologies such as unmanned aerial systems, can be an important tool for warfighters. “For the military, information assurance is absolutely critical,” he says. “Because you can’t have a drone taking signals or commands from the enemy, or a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot not being able to communicate or having somebody intrude on their communications.”
And while the military naturally has systems to handle these type of communications, blockchain offers an additional level of efficiency, McKnight suggests. “They already have methods to do this, obviously, or we wouldn’t have secure communications,” he notes. “But there’s a lot of overhead to it. It’s very difficult to maintain a high level of information assurance.”
In principle, blockchain should be able to provide the military with information assurance, even across untrusted networks or in untrusted circumstances or locations, McKnight offers. “Getting beyond its own networks and own capabilities to be able to verify facts, or circumstances, or targets, or that someone is a friend or foe, it would be nice to have this kind of lower-cost extension to what normally is a high overhead, a very high-cost process of maintaining this assured information environment,” he says.
Blockchaining Internet of Things devices also represents a key opportunity, the professor adds. “There are sensors, devices and resources all with their own digital identity, and with blockchain you’re able to verify that identity,” he states. “You can use a blockchain to confirm when a transaction happened, or if whatever attempted process was successful, or if the relationship was maintained. Basically any camera, device, resource, sensor or drone could have its digital identity and take and accept commands or resources from multiple sources, even across the network itself. With blockchain, you’re able now to extend your reach beyond even your own military networks while still maintaining that degree of information assurance that the military requires.”
The professor’s research is moving into the examination of blockchain applications combined with the Internet of Things and cloud platforms to improve trust across devices for the public and private sector in cities or regions. He is working with the city of Syracuse and the Central New York region to improve cybersecurity through the use of blockchain.
The idea of connecting applications to blockchain would have helped the city of Baltimore in May when it suffered a ransomware attack, McKnight ventures. “If the city of Baltimore had just backed up their services daily to the cloud, and even if their old, vulnerable Microsoft devices were hacked, it wouldn’t really matter,” he says. “They would’ve locked down the day’s data, and they wouldn’t have been shut down indefinitely. So it’s a combination of cloud plus edge, or cloud-to-edge technology.”
Yaga offers that blockchain, when paired with other software systems such as artificial intelligence or machine learning, would also extend digital capabilities. “It will play very nicely with those applications,” he states. “It’s all data, and machine learning and artificial intelligence, they thrive on massive pools of data. So, you’re never going to really just have a blockchain as your one system. There’s always going to be additional systems and different technologies built into your blockchain application and ancillary databases.”
NIST, in its role as information provider, will continue as a blockchain educator and standards developer, Yaga shares. “We’ve got an expanded blockchain workbench that we’re implementing now and some hardware,” he notes. “And we’ve got a couple different people, myself included, who are working with various standards bodies, both nationally and internationally, to try and help develop the very beginnings of the standardization process for these blockchain different systems.” They are first tackling the development of foundational standards, like an overview of the privacy, identity and security taxonomies, as well as terminology documents, which will serve as the basis for later blockchain standards.
Both of the experts agree that users do not have to be a computer scientist to implement a blockchain application. Yaga recommends making “clear-eyed decisions” about whether or not the technology actually can be applied to solve problems. “I always say, if you’re thinking about using blockchain, find a small system that sounds like it could utilize a blockchain properly and then develop your software that utilizes the blockchain for that, but don’t discard your existing system,” he advises. “Run them in parallel, with both of them ingesting the same data. And then gather different metrics on both systems, run it for a while and compare to see if it’s giving you any benefits. Right now, it could be seen like a blockchain Wild West, but it’ll eventually be tamed and people will find the best uses for it, and it’ll continue to grow from there,” Yaga notes.