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Blockchain could hold the keys to the IoT's future

The internet of things is facing a dilemma. While connected devices are expected to dominate every aspect of our lives in the coming years — and already outnumber humans in terms of a basic headcount — belief in the ecosystem’s security is still lacking, and has a long way to go before businesses and individuals fully invest in its potential.

In a recent poll (note: registration required) of IoT professionals, 54% expressed concerns around current standards of IoT security. Take into account that 56% of these same professionals expect every single device around us to be voice-enabled within 10 years, and you have a tension that’s only set to grow.

Connecting technologies, not just devices

The answer may lie in the complete opposite of the traditional notion of centralized data — the decentralization of data. In other words, blockchain.

Many see blockchain as the tool to bring scalability and privacy to the IoT universe, and 68% in the recent poll expect integration between the two technologies within five years. It has all the signs of a successful marriage too, with geographically distributed IoT devices suited to the similarly decentralized peer-to-peer ledger.

Individual sectors are already seeing blockchain disruption — for example, the music business with the protection of artists’ intellectual rights, and financial institutions in the handling of payments and guaranteeing the integrity of transactions. It’s not far-fetched to see the synergies of multiple technologies as the next step in the innovation timeline.

The specific question for IoT, and those businesses that see such great potential in connected devices, is what type of blockchain can wield the greatest rewards.

The other blockchain

Most people will now be familiar with public blockchains through the stardom of Bitcoin. The democratization of payments has seen blockchain technology become part of mainstream conversations, but private ledgers are largely unexplored.

Private blockchains, which allow only a preselected group of people to maintain the integrity of the ledger, can empower businesses to be more intuitive in the way they manage IoT devices. Most businesses do not operate in silos and have to abide by certain regulations or bodies of authority. It’s not practical to reinvent every industry in the mold of Bitcoin, so permission-based ledgers may hold the key to scaling IoT sensibly, while all the while maintaining compliance with external structures.

Take agriculture, for example. IoT is already helping optimize supply chains and deliver smart logistics — tracking assets from a farmer’s field all the way to the shop floor through a web of connected sensors. A partnership with blockchain, however, can take this one step further, guaranteeing food safety or ensuring the correct farm is given credit by hosting information on a living ledger.

What’s more, farmers must abide to strict codes when it comes to what they can and cannot deliver to consumers, whether that be hygiene standards or conditions of livestock. In uploading a wealth of IoT data to private ledgers, a form of cryptographic auditing is ensured, broken down into simple inputs and outputs.

The joy of blockchain technology is that in coding the sensory data of machines directly onto the ledger, validity can be guaranteed from the first entry onward. In short, IoT and blockchain are self-reinforcing.

Preparing for the machines

Optimizing current systems is one half of the story, preparing for the future remains the other. Industrial IoT is revolutionizing how we manage supply chains and logistics. IoT-enabled devices allow for real-time, predictive maintenance of machines, with the more devices connected to the network contributing to a smarter system. This, however, also raises threat levels, with each new connected device another potential entry point for attackers.

Connected devices have already altered the way businesses face up to security. There’s currently no uniform or overarching standard, so it’s up to individual businesses to take the lead. For those without the resources to design platforms with security in mind from the outset, it can often be an arduous task staying in control. Now imagine when AI becomes commonplace within manufacturing and the rate at which robots exchange data becomes exponential. Private blockchains may just prevent future issues when interactions go beyond single-thread conversations and into multi-threaded ones between machines themselves.

Both IoT and blockchain technologies are here to stay. Their convergence is largely expected, and the potential for them to benefit businesses is immeasurable. On one hand, security concerns can be addressed by distributing information across the ledger; on the other, IoT and blockchain can work together to disrupt many of the processes we have come to accept.

Private blockchains allow businesses to pick and choose the most favorable features of decentralized lists, and maintaining control in what is contributed to it at the same time. The result, if managed correctly, could change the very way we understand and utilize the internet of things.

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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Private blockchains allow businesses to pick and choose the most favorable features of decentralized lists, and maintaining control in what is contributed to it at the same time.

If it's private, you don't need a blockchain. When you control who reads and who writes (and the business rules for doing so), a PODB (Plain Ol' Database) will be orders-of-magnitude faster and cheaper.
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