After the city of Flint, Michigan, temporarily switched water sources in 2014, residents began to develop unusual medical conditions. The city later learned the water was contaminated with high levels of lead and other toxins. Flint has a population of over 100,000. At first, state and city officials, including the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, refuted the discovery and reassured residents the city water was safe for drinking. Official defenses fell only after citizens and non-governmental entities put together mounting evidence.
In the future, we could use blockchains to avoid the kind of uncertainty and misinformation that caused so much damage to the Flint community.
Blockchain technology could be rolled out as part of a two-layer system: one layer for collecting supply-line data in real time and the other for securing and making the data available to stakeholders.
First layer: The Internet of things
The internet of things (IoT) would underpin the first layer of the system. Sensors in water lines could collect and stream data in real time, helping the water service company as well as its customers, detect anomalies before contaminants cause harm.
The state of California has already equipped close to 20 percent of its residents with smart water meters. The meters collect data and send alerts on water leakages and usage to consumers’ phones. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) is also integrating IoT into its water supply system.
These pilot projects could easily be upgraded with precise sensors such as near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS) to include data on chemical levels.
If such a system were in place in Michigan, Flint’s water service company could have found the lead contamination the moment it exceeded healthy levels, preventing the people there from suffering medical conditions.
Second layer: The blockchain
But by itself, IoT is vulnerable to manipulation. Collecting real-time data on water supplies doesn’t guarantee the information will be put to good use or that it will reach all stakeholders. This is where the blockchain comes in and provides the second layer of crisis prevention.
When evidence of a problem could result in high costs or lawsuits, state officials or water service company staff are often incentivized to censor, edit, or even delete data analysis. The insistence by Flint authorities for months that city water was safe for residents provides an indication of how authorities often handle such risk.
Connected devices in IoT can also become targets of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, hackings, thefts of data, and even remote hijackings. We’ve already seen this risk at play. On October 21, 2016, Internet-connected smart devices were infected with a virus and subsequently used to launch a major DDoS attack on services such as Twitter, Netflix, and PayPal.
Criminals may also hack the system and misuse the data. For instance, they could use water-usage data to tell them when residents are not home and then burglarize them.
But a blockchain could solve most of these issues. Over a decentralized and immutable ledger, the water service company becomes able to stream data that no one can hide, edit, or censor.
Residents could confirm the information they receive on their devices about their water is accurate and credible. The impact would make those in charge of water supply systems more responsible and proactive in keeping the water supply safe.
Encrypted interactions and smart contracts
The blockchain also offers the IoT a decentralized platform on which players could securely share both data and value through encryption. A user could give access to their data only to people or machines with which they transact, and only for the duration of the transaction. This would safeguard both security and privacy.
A criminal would have difficulty accessing resident data, since public and private keys would secure user data shared with the water service company.
The water system would involve smart contracts designed to send alerts to users’ phone. Codes on the blockchain would automatically execute when predefined conditions are met. For example, if the lead concentration in the water exceeded a healthy level, the system would send alerts without needing human intervention by water service company employees.
This hybrid of IoT and blockchain would of course have many more use cases beyond water management. To name just one other example, the same system could be used to improve the monitoring of oil pipelines.
Companies like Pacific Gas and Electric and TransCanada Corp. are already incorporating IoT into their pipeline-monitoring systems. But, as with water monitoring, the real-time collection of data from oil pipelines is still missing the blockchain layer necessary for securing and sharing information with relevant stakeholders.
To date, supply-line organizations are showing little or no interest in blockchain tech. But as customers and communities apply increasing pressure for gas and oil pipelines that don’t leak and pollute, clean water, and industrial food and beverage facilities that accurately monitor contamination, we could see a shift towards implementing blockchain technology.
Rupert Hackett is general manager of Bitcoin.com.au and BuyaBitcoin.com.au. He specializes in the digital currency and digital payment space, writes for multiple bitcoin and tech websites, and is an acting Board Director for the Australian Digital Currency Commerce Association (ADCCA).