Navigant Research Blog

High Stakes Blockchain Applications Are a New Frontier for Cybersecurity

— November 30, 2017

Blockchain-Based Systems Are Only as Strong as Their Weakest Link

On November 16, the US Patent and Trademark Office released a patent filed by Nasdaq that describes a blockchain-based architecture that could be used to track the ownership and transaction of stock market assets.

Nasdaq is part of a wave of big name organizations globally—including banks, utilities, and the Pentagon—that have announced plans to experiment with blockchain to determine whether it can help their organizations run more smoothly, efficiently, and securely.

As the hype train charges onward and expectations skyrocket, there is a real risk that in the rush to generate solutions to increasingly complex high stakes problems, adopters will forget that simply adding blockchain doesn’t make a system bulletproof. Before integrating blockchain into keystone systems like stock exchanges or electricity grid operations, it’s important to understand where blockchain brings security to a system, where it doesn’t, and how it interacts with other pieces of the puzzle.

Blockchains Are Built on Security and Cryptography Principles

Blockchain architectures are considered a robust and highly secure means of storing information for several reasons:

  • The blockchain is stored across a decentralized and distributed network of many computers, creating a redundant record with no single point of failure.
  • Network nodes use a resource-intensive cryptographic process to reach majority consensus on the chronology and validity of transactions between nodes.
  • The full record of information stored on the blockchain is auditable by any node in the network.

In combination, these properties make the blockchain ledger itself resilient to attacks. Indeed, despite soaring valuation that provides a $140 billion incentive for hackers, the underlying architecture of Bitcoin has never been broken.

Determined Hackers Will Work Around Unbreakable Cryptography

Rather than attacking the blockchain itself, hackers have repeatedly exploited weakness in the hardware and software components of the system—the personal computers and devices that make up the nodes of the network and the software applications that enable autonomous transfers and digital contracts. It’s the cryptographic analog of identity theft: a thief doesn’t need to smash their way into a bank vault if they can clone your credit card.

White hat hackers used exactly this principle to gain irreversible control of users’ Bitcoin wallets by exploiting a hole in cellular text messaging protocols. A hacker famously exploited errors in an Ethereum smart contract to steal $31 million  from early backers of a startup. The blockchain preserves an immutable open record of the thefts for all to see, but it also makes them irreversible.

Planning Ahead

The electricity system is a frequent target of cyber attacks backed by powerful antagonists. To date, no blockchain architecture has yet been subjected to a stress test of the magnitude we might expect if it were supporting, say, the automated demand response capabilities of a microgrid in an urban financial district. Potential applications in these systems are among the most transformative opportunities for blockchain, but will also be among the most prone to cyber attack and the hardest to field test at scale.

Until a set of comprehensive security standards for blockchain-based systems is developed, Nasdaq and any organizations seeking to adopt blockchain-based solutions must recognize that blockchain does not inherently provide end-to-end security. For blockchain to be part of the solution requires thoughtful implementation and proactive design that maximizes security at the ends of the chain. Every link of the system must be evaluated for security and potential vulnerabilities, and adopters should be especially cautious about entrusting critical systems to the technology.

 

If You Build It, They May Come: Solving for Customer Experience in TE Platforms

— November 16, 2017

The utility customer of the future lives at the center of an ecosystem of networked and largely automated smart devices. Their household is within their preferred temperature range whenever they are at home; their EV charges when electricity prices are cheapest and is always ready for the morning commute; and they store any surplus electricity generated by their rooftop PV or, if the price is right, sell it in a digital market. Every decision made by each of these devices is a data point used by different service providers to refine and optimize customers’ distributed energy resources (DER) and integrate them with wider grid processes.

Transactive energy (TE) platforms will underpin tomorrow’s consumer energy market. The interface between energy producers and consumers, TE platforms allow parties to interact with one another in an open market while ensuring the needs of end users and the grid are met. These platforms will incorporate multiple technologies—including blockchain and machine learning—which have attracted a great deal of interest from the energy industry. But what should the consumer experience with TE platforms look like in practice?

TE Platforms Must Balance Grid Needs, User Preferences, and Ease-of-Use

TE service providers must supply an appealing product that creates value out of the box while providing options for users who are more hands-on. Optimizing household energy consumption to minimize costs requires a multitude of forecasts, calculations, and decisions. Since electricity bills in the US average around $115 per month, or 0.2% of the median household income ($55,000), the typical consumer has little incentive to manage these processes themselves.

Grid+, a technology startup and TE platform provider, solves this problem by supplying users with intelligent agents—hubs that integrate price signals, user preferences, and grid needs to coordinate a household’s smart device (TransActive Grid and Grid Singularity have a similar approach). While some user preferences may be set manually (e.g., preferred temperature range), most will be automated based on analyses of user behavior (e.g., heating the house prior to the customer’s return from work). The user decides their preferred balance of comfort and profits and they need only supply the agent with enough currency to pay bills and execute the necessary transactions on their behalf. All transactions are recorded rapidly and securely on a blockchain.

Thinking with Portals

Aspiring platform providers must devote as much attention to the end-user experience as they do to their platforms’ underlying technology. Customers balance their own comfort levels, convenience, financial costs and profits, and societal or ethical goals when making decisions about electricity consumption. Automation and machine learning solutions have the technological capability to deliver on that balance, but optimizing behind the scenes won’t be enough to inspire consumer trust or purchasing power.

The reality is that the Energy Cloud customer won’t care whether their platform rests on blockchain or a centralized database or a traditional billing system. They’ll care about outcomes and will need on-demand access to a portal that elegantly consolidates and visualizes their Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem’s performance: What are their profits from selling power to the neighbors? How well is their PV system performing and have they paid off the install costs? How efficient is their home? Positive, confident results will drive further investment into the platforms themselves (so might friendly rivalries between local users).

For TE platform providers, competition for users will be fierce, and consumers will have their pick of platforms vying for their attention. The TE leaders in the Energy Cloud future may not have the most advanced technology, but they will have a blend of technology, functionality, user interface design, and perhaps gamification that creates an attractive and compelling user experience.

 

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