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Blockchain and IoT can build the walls of the future

The concept of a physical wall for security has been the subject of much debate in recent months. While you may be sick of hearing about it (don’t worry, this is not a political post), one overlooked talking point is the use of a metaphorical wall for security circa 2019. For us in the tech sector, these sorts of electronic means aren’t exactly new — the idea of a firewall is something that has been in network security for decades; the firewall acts as a gate for data coming and going, ensuring that nothing sinister gets through.

That leads to a much bigger discussion. The biggest threat of our age is electronic. At a time when money transfers electronically, identities are confirmed electronically, crime occurs electronically, the idea of virtual security — a wall of the future, if you will — may be more important than physical security. Imagine a boundary, however you picture it. It could be a physical wall or just a line drawn in the dirt. But there are ground sensors, cameras, drones and other electronic means of monitoring it, because having the resources to keep physical eyes on all angles and views is simply impossible. How do you know that they are not being spoofed or compromised in some way?

With the decade-long rise in smart devices, a single smartphone or tablet can be the source of nefarious activity. Individuals can transmit false data, or even alter existing records, nullifying the purpose of that boundary.

The solution is a different kind of wall: an electronic wall made of ground sensors that detect the passage of vehicles, critter cams alerting security of movement of smaller things, and possibly even drones keeping watch from the sky. Although this type of wall can’t be overcome in the same ways as a physical wall, it is still vulnerable. We need a wall that cannot be hacked, cannot be altered and can constantly be checked for suspicious activity. A blockchain-hardened wall fits these criteria. Blockchain hardening of IoT devices represents a simple-but-powerful solution to a world of smart devices — secure data feeds and other transmissions, detecting hack attempts and allowing for instant alerts of other compromises.

With potentially any network-connected device as a threat, protecting the data communications and applications security of any border will be a critical requirement. The border — physical metaphorical wall — is going to require a platform for securing access by IoT devices, particularly the ability to create and protect unique identifiers.

It is not enough to simply believe a device that asserts a particular identity; in the case of the American border, U.S. border agents have already been dealing with compromised devices for years. Instead, this idea requires that chips in devices offer users the capability to securely identify themselves — and in doing, so create a unique identity for each device.

Blockchain technology represents a means to add robustness to the databases that store this information, thus enabling proof that the government officials themselves are not internally manipulating information. It naturally also demonstrates that the data is not being manipulated by outside individuals — a key concept pioneered by the Austin, Texas, software team Factom developed all the way back in 2016.

This concept moves beyond simply hashing snapshots of the database and posting it within a robust secondary distributed database. The idea takes advantage of the cryptography built within public blockchains that would allow devices to self-authenticate. Working much the same way as cryptocurrency transaction, you and I can exchange Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency without ever meeting in person by cryptographically signing the transaction; devices equipped with the appropriate chips and software can too.

In terms of border/boundary security, IoT devices used to protect need to be secure themselves, and blockchain technology can reinforce them. By cryptographically signing the messages the IoT devices send, each device will have its own unique identity and the authenticity of the messages can be verified. This allows authorities to know that each device is authentic — essentially akin to blocks in a blockchain. Each message could potentially have a hash of the previous message, which then provides proof that data feeds have not been compromised. An example of this is an image stream — if any data is missing or placed in the wrong order, the chaining of sequential data would flag this as an issue.

In addition, it is crucial that the signing of data is achieved at a hardware level, not a software level. The quality of message security increases the closer signatures execute to the hardware. The inherent flaw of this is that this model requires more device power, and sending out heavier messages may drain batteries for those in remote regions.

Those types of practicalities are important to consider when looking at the possibilities of supporting modern border security. However, when a boundary is established — be it a physical wall, a fence or a line on a map — there’s no denying the threat of electronic intrusion at these locations. To address that, emerging tech such as the blockchain can enable hard-working Customs and Border Protection agents to do their job in a safe and efficient manner. By creating a more secure and transparent data stream, security streams, transmissions and other critical information can immediately be authenticated. The result is a safer, more secure border that addresses true threats in the 21st century.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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