Blockchain has the potential to convert Internet of Things into Internet of Trusted Things. But some challenges need to be addressed for Blockchain IoT to work.
Today, the Internet of Things is proliferating at an unprecedented rate and is omnipresent in our daily life. From homes to cities, everything around us seems to be in a race to become “smart.” The number of connected IoT devices is expected to reach 75 billion by 2025, five times more than what it was in 2015. Such rapid growth also brings in unforeseen perils. Are the devices genuine? Can the data from them be trusted? How do I make sense from this massive amount of data? Blockchain is another emerging technology that could address several of these concerns. It has the potential to convert “Internet of Things” into “Internet of Trusted Things.” There are, however, some challenges that need to be addressed for this promising Blockchain IoT to work.
Scaling Up The Ever Growing Data Store
Blockchain is often considered apt for adding reliability and trustworthiness to the data from connected devices. It makes the machines more autonomous, but this approach comes at a cost. Some research points out that by 2025, billions of devices will be emanating 79.4 zettabytes (79,400,000,000,000 gigabytes) of data. If all of this data has to be securely stored and redundant copies maintained on each Blockchain node, storage and scalability pose considerable challenges. Blockchain is traditionally not designed to store such massive amounts of data. In addition, processing and verifying the data using Blockchain consensus protocols would add latency, which is undesirable in time-sensitive M2M communication.
Instead, we should consider a hybrid approach where only a subset of the data is added to the Blockchain ledgers. It is prudent to use edge computing and big data applications to filter and derive valuable insights from the IoT data so that only this relevant information is stored in Blockchain. Blockchain IoT would involve only adding value to the IoT data – ascertaining the order and time of the incoming messages, encrypting, or verifying their authenticity. Next, it is vital to choose the appropriate consensus protocols to improve bandwidth usage and reduce latency. In addition, the processing power of the Blockchain nodes needs to be augmented to address the large volume of computation required in the case of IoT. Blockchain IoT requires careful planning of how much information needs to go into Blockchain.
Need for Decentralized Identifiers in Blockchain IoT
“DIDs offer a unified representation of identity for people, making it possible to build large-scale, decentralized and interoperable IoT applications.” – Dr. Xin Xin Fan, Head of Cryptography, IoTeX.
Blockchain can provide trusted means to identify each device using decentralized identifiers (DID). In the Blockchain network, each sensor or machine would have its own unique identity and perhaps a key-pair set up when it connects to the network. Furthermore, the manufacturers could add their digitally signed certification to each device that acts as their verifiable credentials. The verifiable sensors can then use the keys to digitally sign their interactions with the Blockchain network, thereby doubling down on the authenticity of data received. It improves the trustworthiness of the data recorded. It would also simplify the current security protocols used by applications to communicate with devices with lower capabilities. A unique digital identifier to each device further makes it easier to track the devices throughout their lifecycle. It is highly beneficial when tracking high-value assets.
Security Concerns Addressed by Blockchain IoT
Giving cryptographic identities and the ability to authorize their own transactions is vital for the growth of the Internet of Things. But it also hastens the need for more sophisticated hardware and better computational power. IoT applications are bound to deal with several security concerns, and this additional complexity in advancing them to be the Internet of Trusted Things exacerbates the difficulties.
If the machines turn out to be malicious, then the misinformation that they transmit would have been permanently recorded in the immutable Blockchain ledger. Hence, it is paramount that the machines and sensors are designed, checked, and monitored to thwart any tampering attempts or device failures. Tamper-resistant hardware and software embedded in the devices would establish higher levels of security and trust. Furthermore, using hardened enclaves in the devices to isolate the data that needs to be recorded on the Blockchain could thwart the hacking and data manipulation efforts.
Handling Data Privacy
Several IoT applications work with sensitive data, such as remote patient monitoring systems. Hence, it is essential to address the need for data privacy and anonymity. Handling privacy concerns in IoT could be very challenging as it requires guardrails spanning data collection, transmission, processing, and storing. Blockchain could help alleviate the problem. Using smart contracts and decentralized identifiers, we can limit who can send the information to the Blockchain and who can access it. Various encryption techniques can cryptographically secure the transactions, allowing only authorized personnel and devices to access the sensitive information.
At the same time, it is vital to consider the data privacy laws of every country where the Blockchain nodes reside. Adhering to the data protection and residency laws of every country can become quite challenging as the Blockchain networks tend to span across the world. Hence a new and comprehensive approach needs to be considered if Blockchain is to be purposed for storing information transmitted from connected devices.
Oracles For Consistent, Tamper-proof Data
The interaction between devices and Blockchain has to be consistent, irrespective of the number of nodes or machines talking to each other. For instance, when a sensor raises the alarm, most Blockchain nodes must accept this alert for it to be recorded on the network. All nodes must communicate with the device at the same time, or else there are chances that some nodes might miss out on the alert.
The use of Blockchain Oracles, entities built to connect Blockchain with the outside world, can be a valuable addition. They ensure every node gets consistent data from IoT devices. Oracles such as Chainlink provide decentralized yet tamper-proof inputs, outputs, and computations to support advanced “smart contracts” on any Blockchain. Furthermore, they also prevent the nodes from being overloaded trying to access scores of devices at the same time.
Standards and Protocols
In order to effectively communicate, the two people, devices, or machines should speak the same language. The same principle applies to machines interacting with the Blockchain. The devices are myriad, built by different vendors. There are a plethora of Blockchain platforms, each with its unique features and abilities. It is, therefore, imperative that a common language, a shared protocol, a standard is established to enable disparate devices to communicate with equally different Blockchain platforms.
There are several initiatives underway that focus on various aspects of standardizing interactions among devices. The Industrial IoT (Internet) Consortium (IIC)’s Industrial Internet Reference Architecture (IIRA) strives to create a common architecture framework to develop interoperable IIoT systems. Its members include IoTeX, a company that aims to build a Blockchain-driven, privacy-focused trust platform for supporting the collaboration and data exchange among devices, applications, and people. Similarly, the Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative (MOBI) is creating vehicle standards in Blockchain, distributed ledgers, and related technologies. Their recent “Trusted Trip” framework enables certifying a trip based on a combination of verified identity and timestamped location. It opens up a multitude of applications that will further green mobility and decarbonization.
It is increasingly becoming evident that Alexas, Siris, connected cars, and even self-ordering refrigerators will be a part and parcel of our lives in the near future. It is, hence, critical that we build a machine-to-machine ecosystem where trust is innate and not an afterthought. Blockchain technology has several characteristics that are capable of creating an Internet of Trusted Things network. Hence, it is imperative that we make Blockchain IoT work seamlessly and ethically.