General IoT connections across a city can be improved with the help of blockchain

Will blockchain revolutionise the Internet of Things

Blockchain technology is essentially a secure, distributed ledger that can serve as the foundation for many systems. It’s strange to think that something so disconnected and decentralized is actually one of the most viable, connected technologies today — outside of IoT, of course.

This is because once a proper blockchain is established, it creates a network — similar to peer-to-peer — that powers and drives the related market. The best example is Bitcoin, the popular cryptocurrency for which blockchain technology was originally developed. Bitcoin is a form of currency, completely separate from fiat with no single controlling entity or agency.

The technology is currently being leveraged and applied to many industries from energy and resource distribution to sensitive document storage and retrieval in fields like medical, real estate and even law. And wouldn’t you believe it — it can also be used to improve the IoT ecosystem.

How blockchain will revolutionise IoT

At the heart of IoT is the concept of shared, relevant data. Every connected device generates digital information, which is then processed or collated by a primary, remote system. So, for example, something as simple as a smart fitness tracker collects data about the user’s activities and health. This information is synced up with the primary system, a mobile app that resides on the user’s smartphone. The information is collected by this app, processed and then displayed in a readable format for that particular user. At the same time the information is being broadcast or shared with the company’s servers.

If the data remains local, it is much more secure and private. But once it’s transmitted via the internet to remote servers or platforms, that’s no longer the case. It’s considered open and public, no matter how secure the connection.

That’s exactly where blockchain comes into play. Due to the nature of the technology, it can be used to authenticate and lock down the resulting data, offering three levels of improved protections: more privacy, better security and reduced complexity.

What can blockchain do for IoT data privacy?

The more devices synced up and connected to the open internet and the more data being streamed, the more vulnerable you — and similar users are — to outside attacks. A smart home security camera can be used against you, for instance, to spy on your activities. A smart speaker like Amazon Echo could be used to listen in on your conversations.

Using IoT and connected devices does sacrifice some privacy, and it cannot be avoided.

In many cases, the users aren’t even aware of the data being collected by a device. A smart TV in your home could be collecting tons of sensitive information about you right this instant, and you’d never know.

Blockchain can be used to address security and privacy issues, simply because of how it was designed. It offers a central, secure and verifiable place to store and share data. Via encryption, only those with an authorised cryptographic public and private key can read the information. Furthermore, once it’s stored in the chain, it cannot be altered in any way — which makes it completely accurate and precise. The latter means that outsiders can’t compromise connected devices to collect confidential or sensitive information, and they can’t manipulate the resulting system in any way.

What can blockchain do for IoT data security?

Each IoT device can be considered a node or connection point, where everything tapping into it has direct access to the open internet. This goes both ways, of course, where someone on the outside could tap in and gain access to all incoming and outgoing data, as well as the local network. Gain access to a router, and you can then access all devices connected to it including computers, game consoles, smart devices and phones.

Blockchain will help eliminate this problem by creating safe mesh networks, which tend to be more secure anyway because of how they handle authentication. Only trusted devices may communicate with or access the network, while unverified sources remain blocked out. Since “blocks” in the blockchain are accurate and secure, it means that device spoofing and impersonation can also be prevented — at least in order to connect to that particular network.

The manner of security offered is so potent, IBM saw fit to claim that blockchain has the “potential to securely unlock the business and operational value of Internet of Things.” It could open up new opportunities in business because the technology can be leveraged in a secure, reliable way.

What can blockchain do for IoT data complexity?

You wouldn’t know it, but many of the connected devices you use today employ an incredibly complex system that can fail in any number of ways and under various circumstances.

Let’s say, for example, that you and your spouse use a smart home grocery app to collect information about your current food supply and also to make decisions about purchasing new goods. In this example, your refrigerator is “smart” and knows when you’re out of milk. It sends an alert to both you and your spouse that someone needs to pick up milk on the way home and then updates your grocery list.

Both you and your spouse see the message and stop on your way home, ending up with two cartons of milk instead of one — which is a bit overkill. You pay for your milk and update the app or grocery list, while your spouse does the same. No communication between the two platforms is done, so neither of you know the other picked up milk, too.

Effectively, this is a fault or failure of the system which caused you both to purchase milk, spending twice what was needed and getting extra items. There was no communication between the entire system about milk being taken care of.

Blockchain can be used to facilitate these communications or interactions, allowing devices and platforms to authenticate one another. It can eliminate third-parties altogether, meaning developers and manufacturers don’t have to worry about improving support with alternate apps and devices. As long as the device in question supports blockchain — the primary system in use — everything is good to go.

The data can effectively be stored in the network, reducing complexity and allowing more platforms and systems access to it.

We’re Just Getting Started

Blockchain technologies are still relatively new and uncharted, which means we’ll not only be seeing a whole lot about it, but also new and innovative ways in which it’s being used. It may someday be used to facilitate data sharing of driverless vehicles, making them safer. It might also be used to buy and sell individual retail data and insights, and it may even be able to develop a secure and reliable voting solution.

The possibilities truly are endless for blockchain, both in a general sense and in its application to the IoT industry.

Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance STEM writer and blogger. She's the editor of Schooled By Science and regularly contributes to sites like The Naked Scientists and Inhabitat. Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter and subscribing to her blog.
Megan Ray Nichols

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