By Mr Benson H Oosterbaan

Introduction

Distributed Ledgers, more commonly referred to as blockchain technology (BT), have recently gained widespread attention within both the private and public sphere. The obvious question should therefore be how public-service providers such as can Defence harness and leverage BT. This article assesses two proposed use-cases within the New Zealand Army (NZA) and how these proposed use-cases have applicability to the broader military environment of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF). Sustainability plays a significant role in assessing the application of BT within the NZA, through its solutions provided to practical problems encountered within both military and non-military operations

The scope of this article is to generate discussion on the critical issues that BT solves, namely that of data security, followed by a study of two military use cases encountered by the NZA within secure signals and logistical command structures. There is further analysis of the concerns surrounding the deployment of the technology within both military and non-military operations. This article aims to provide a concise summary of the theory behind BT and the various unique elements that make up real-world applications, through the lens of the NZA. The end state, therefore, is to provide the reader with a clear overview of the potential technological benefits gained from deploying BT to the future Army environment.

Our Y2K Moment

There is a deficiency across organisations in the widespread advancement of information technology (IT), namely that of the hardware and software elements that enable the deployment of emerging applications within organisational infrastructure. Deficiencies are observed when content (data) is distributed, as it remains vulnerable to manipulation due to the limitations of data-transmission capabilities and processes.[1] Many of today’s encryption standards and processes are actively building around the ‘trap-door function’: a mathematical problem that is easy to solve if the user has access to the equation. An example of the trap door function is Rivest-Shamir-Adleman encryption (RSA) (currently utilised in the NZDF RAS DIXS process) where two prime numbers are multiplied together to obtain a third number. This third number is then utilised to encrypt (scramble) data information contained within a data packet, while the unscrambling of data requires a private key (which is the derivative of the prime numbers themselves).[2] To date there is no efficient algorithm that can calculate these numerical factors, resulting in encryption standards that not even the fastest computers (as of 2019) can break.[3] The conclusion, therefore, is that the internet is safe only as long as we can assume that the math that handles the encryption of data is complicated enough, beyond that of the computational power of current generational devices.

What must be considered then are the next-generational technologies that will have the ability to decode current cryptographic keys. This consideration leads us to the comparison of the Y2K moment of the turn of the century twenty years ago, aptly naming this article. During Y2K, developers were sent scrambling when it was realised that existing code-structures had failed to account for the years beyond 1999. What followed was an expensive development cycle that eventually avoided the possibility of world-wide disruption through merely coding the logic of dates 2000 and beyond. From the Y2K case study, the error was found to be in the genesis of the code, as human beings wrote it. Today, however, with the utilisation of blockchain technology, organisations can sustain data practices without risk to integrity through the technology’s fundamental encryption standards.[4]

Blockchain, the fundamentals

The answer to the issue of security surrounding the maintenance of Defence Generated Data (DGD) is that of the blockchain having the ability to secure data through its enhancement of the collection, distribution, and storage of data through a distributed ledger. Here BT is best comprehended through an analogy that imagines the relationship between databases and how multiple databases (being a structured set of data held in a computer) synchronise with one another. Blockchain technology is a powerful tool that assists in active collaboration[5], and this relationship is portrayed through the function of a railway train.

This train contains numerous carriages behind the engine (block 0); each carriage comprises of two coupling points, the first connecting the car in front and the second to the car behind. Naturally, the last car also has two couplers, as it must cater to the possibility of another carriage being added to the engine (chain) at a later date. This carriage coupler analogy only applies after the engine, as this unit is the driver of the chain of carriages, and since only carriages of the same type can be added behind the engine, it is impossible to introduce foreign entities (such as a freight carriage to a passenger service). To identify the parallels of the above analogy in the blockchain, the engine is the genesis block (block 0) of the chain (the entire carriage + engine assembly), within each carriage are records (data), and the linkages between the carriages are the hashes or computational addresses of each block/node.

Furthermore, each carriage contains a timestamp recording the creation of each coupler connection as well as independent transactional data (which is impossible to manipulate). When a new carriage is added to the engine chain, it is first authenticated as being a legitimate addition through the comparison of crucial set variables. These set variables include an identification number, address of the previous carriage, its personal address (as the hash), and a reference to the transaction data held within the carriage.

Annex A depicts the carriage and engine analogy for reference. This information is then authenticated by every other carriage enforcing system-wide acceptance of the new addition, ensuring that the information contained is identical and replicated across the entire network. The main benefit of this extensive verification process is that it denies any opportunity to manipulate existing data through either corruption or spoofing (replicating of data) within the blockchain network. [6]  Like any real-life train service, tracks are upgraded, engines replaced, and of course, carriages added.

As for the types of blockchain, they are categorised (according to Vitalik Buterin, founder of digital currency, Ethereum) [7]   into three groups: private, consortium, and public:

  1. The fully-private blockchain is an isolated system, organised and maintained by a particular institution while a consortium blockchain is where specific nodes/computers grant permissions to control the flow of information and the right of access, and
  2. the public blockchain, therefore, is where the contents and data contained within the network can be read by anyone in the world, along with full read/write access. The public blockchain is currently popularised within digital currency platforms, such as Bitcoin, and
  3. the fully-private blockchain is the only form of blockchain technology that can be applied and adopted in the defence sector, given the nature and sensitivity of the information generated and stored.

Data – the Oil of the 21st Century

In the beginning, there was the world-wide-web (W3); the “hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.”[8] These words were rendered on the first website ever, outlining the provisional plan for its purpose, while at the same time HTML and the first internet browsers were launched. The year was 1991, and now in 2019, we are facing the fourth industrial revolution concerning the internet’s evolution. Information has become the oil of the 21st century[9], with recent data breaches acting as harbingers of the shift from open-data policies to the focus now on privatised user-data. The key example that comes to mind was the Cambridge Analytica (CA) data breach of 2018. Here Silicon Valley giant Facebook (FB) provided a third-party client with data that had been freely provided by its users in order for the client (CA) to harvest individual profile information (and that of their mutual friends list). The harvest then led to the creation of politicised targeted ads and marketing at a critical moment within the political landscape of the United States of America (i.e. the 2016 US presidential elections). Around 87 million profiles had their data harvested, which after being publicised, resulted in severe financial repercussions (FB stocks losing more than USD 100 billion) and the closure of CA by May of 2018.[10] This case study highlights the importance surrounding the exchange of information at present and how information is evolving into the exchange of value, value being one of the oldest forms of communication between human beings.[11]

Blockchain technologies have become the answer to the privatisation of data and (along with other distributed technologies) has started to draw the attention of public sectors previously un-envisioned due to their potential cross-sectorial applications that expand beyond that of finance (where blockchain initially emerged). Currently, encrypted information that has a shelf-life of ten or more years (such as Defence generated medical records) is already at risk even though the computational power required to decrypt its does not yet exist (as mentioned previously in the application of RSA technology). It is also important to remember that as new technologies evolve and become common-place, cyberattacks evolve in tandem, with their repercussions reaching beyond that of malicious data-theft to a far more dangerous tact, that of data manipulation influencing integrity.[12] Militarily, this kind of attack is far more dangerous than data theft for two reasons:

  1. data manipulation affects every aspect of decision making; it also influences what we see, which influences what we think, and eventually how we act, and
  2. as data manipulation is hard to detect, it provides attackers with the ability to exploit natural variations and errors in data, or gives them the ability to delete the information all together.

Blockchain Deployment in Military Environments

Networking giant Cisco predicts that by 2020 cloud storage will account for 88% of the total data storage capacity in the world, while it is also predicted that global mobile data traffic will grow twice as fast as fixed internet traffic from 2017 to 2022.[13] These statistics are alarming considering the deficits of cloud-based capability, and mobile development within the NZDF to date. As an organisation, the NZDF needs to adopt a secure cloud infrastructure that drives towards the hybrid approach of the private/public cloud, tied with front-line mobile messaging. In doing so, blockchain’s permission-based authentication can be utilised to ensure the mantra of ‘data you can trust’, by offering secured data communications in battlefield management systems (BMS). Annex B portrays the compound annual growth rate, in accordance with Cisco data.

To achieve the immutable, secure, and verifiable communication of data transmitted between various elements of the BMS, blockchain technology could be utilised to achieve data provenance through the use of smart contracts and hash encryption. Smart Contracts were initially theorised in 1993 by Nick Szabo, a legal scholar and cryptographer who coined them as “A set of promises, specified in digital form, including protocols within which the parties perform on the other promises”.[14]

Smart contracts are self-executing agreements that operate only when specific parameters are met, with the parameters being openly published into a blockchain. The smart contract with the parameters inserted is then cryptographically encoded into the data carriage, to enforce system-wide observability and verifiability. An example of a simplified smart contract is the relationship between the parameter and the action, where parameter (WHEN the year 2021 is reached) = action (THEN issue notification to all NZDF personnel message “Happy New Year”). This system of contractual obligations is therefore essential to the understanding of secured, one-to-many way communications with the concept being actively investigated by New Zealand’s Five-Eyes partners. This is evident from a 2019 report published by the United States Department of Defense (US-DoD) titled ‘Digital Modernization Strategy’.[15] Within, the US-DOD outline several ways in which they wish to advance the nation’s digital defences, including the integration of cloud and quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and improved communications through distributed ledgers, smart contracts, and blockchain technology.

Within smart contracts, BT is established to ensure that the transmissions sent and received between the cloud architecture and potential mobile front-line units are encrypted and then broadcast across all carriages (nodes) in the network, ensuring data integrity. Through this process, the transmissions sent are held in two ledgers preventing the possibility of corruption or the alteration of the data source. The two ledgers also ensure that all data introduced into the environment is unique and signed by all users, enforcing accountability and thus avoiding deniability. Another benefit is that the information broadcast is contained in a single database, with access being granted solely from the regulation of the smart-contracts hosted in the system.

As each new data transmission is held as equally important, all carriages (nodes) on the network together, ensure that the broadcast is still operational even if a majority of the nodes/computers go offline. In reviewing this process, it may become apparent to some readers that there is no one entity keeping track of the data. Instead, there are hundreds, if not thousands of computers within the network that are keeping track of each transaction. At each block, the nodes communicate with one another and ensure that the same transmission is recorded, with the same conclusions reached. Blockchain, therefore, is the new information technology that inverts the cybersecurity paradigm with the result being that these new networks not only reduce the probability of data manipulation but also impose significantly higher costs upon adversaries trying to achieve it.[16] A condensed visualisation is provided in Annex C for reference.

C-19 – A Case Study

The second environment through which blockchain technologies are being applied is within supply chain logistics, and thus the key output provided by the Royal New Zealand Army Logistic Regiment (RNZALR). Using the shared societal experience of COVID 19 (C-19) as a case study – finding a vaccine is the new holy grail. However, finding a way to distribute this theoretical vaccine on a global scale will be just as important. The extensive nature of this particular supply chain is difficult to comprehend, as it will extend past single-source depositories, national boundaries, and continents. The success of this supply-chain might also require the utilisation of near-gen tools and capabilities such as blockchain in order to combat factors of equitability, the multiple geo-political, economic and nationalistic influences that will certainly affect the manufacturing, funding, and allocation of a cure. [17] In the ideal world, it is going to be essential to ensure a global consensus on who should receive a cure, not necessarily those who have the deepest pockets.

The deployment of blockchain within the supply-chain logistics could look like any/all of the following:

  1. the ease of paperwork processing, and
  2. identification of counterfeit items, and
  3. facilitation of origin tracking, and
  4. distribution of transparent and immutable medical data, and
  5. the operation of logistical procedures in wider organizational networks.[18]

Applicability use cases within the C-19 environment include real-time access to critical info (date and location of C-19 symptoms tests), use of smart contracts to regulate handling of data (overcoming issues related to the use of different national standards for data collection). Similar to cure-authentication, the facilitation of origin tracking is also essential to RNZALR and their operations of providing outputs to the NZA. If faced with a system-wide recall, RNZALR would be able to utilise the blockchain to augment the existing IT system (SAP) through a transparent, superordinate ledger, which tracks the movements of essential, or all items within the system. This superordinate ledger would record the unique metadata of each object, including, but not confined to, factory and manufacturer of origin, batch number, processing data, expiration date/s, and shipping details. Each component is then written to the blockchain, instantly becoming available to all network members (all RNZALR terminals). In the occasion of a systems-critical event (such as the IW-MARS-L grounding of 2018), RNZALR and other key stakeholders would be able to track down the origin in a matter of seconds of a potentially concerning item and advise where applicable.

The secondary benefit found from the deployment of blockchain to logistical command is surrounding the growing anxiety about supply chain management for defence systems, which increasingly use commercial-off-the-shelf components for embedded software systems. The concern is that these components may contain both known and unknown vulnerabilities that could be exploited by an adversary at the time of their choosing. Blockchain technology offers the solution by establishing data provenance for every circuit board, processor, and software component from “cradle to turret”.[19] Blockchain’s ledger logic would ensure that what is transmitted, or even physically shipped by credible senders/suppliers and received by authorised recipients can be trusted (outlined above). Therefore, BT works exceptionally well in the world of logistics, given its numerous contracts, agreements, order forms and requisition documents. Whether these logistic documents are digitally generated or not – the blockchain’s organic logic would ensure that each document remains reliable, accessible, and incorruptible.[20]

Some Limitations

Even though this article has focused on the robust nature and high levels of security attained by BT; there are certainly susceptibilities and specific security challenges associated with it.  There are treacherous passes in any technological revolution, and BT is often overhyped when, in reality, the technology has limitations which may make it inappropriate for many theorised digital applications to-date. The foremost issue faced by this technology is that it is incredibly complex and involves an entirely new vocabulary with new skillsets that are yet to be normalised or tested by time. BT popularity has made the pursuit of cryptography somewhat mainstream; however, it is imperative to acknowledge that the highly specialised industry is chock-full of jargon, while the very complex mathematics making it a challenging profession to develop and foster within a large organisation that relies upon subject-matter-experts. Naturally, a proposed solution to this is to target the required skillsets within the recruitment pipeline, but even then the population from which to draw the certified subject-matter expertise is small. The second limitation that is faced by the theorised deployment of BT within a defence environment is that of network size. Like all other distribution networks, BT can be open to the possibility of attack through the majority.

Attacking through the majority (also known as 51%, coined by Satoshi Nakamoto when he launched Bitcoin) is where an enemy party/entity obtains 50% of the open-distributable network, thus enabling them to manipulate the read/write functions of the public ledgers described in the introductory paragraphs above. By obtaining 50% of the total computing power of the chain (I.E. secure communications), a user can control the blocks (carriages from our introduction) added to a chain. Any pre-existing data has now lost its integrity as it can be further manipulated as the chain is technically centralised behind one user/pool. The 51% attack, although theorised, is in practice tough to successfully execute due to the significant costs incurred by not only hardware (CPU)[21] but also the costs of electricity. User requirements for 51% attacks are therefore heavily stacked against enemy entities attempting to obtain the market share of a given system, while they would also lose anonymity due to the visible nature within a network of such a manoeuvre. For these purposes, existing public BT networks are closely monitored by the broader community of users, ensuring no-one unknowingly/knowingly obtains such network influence.[22] This process could, of course, be emulated within the defence environment as part of standard operating procedures, as is the norm within the NZDF operating environment. The final roadblock that is envisioned in the way of deploying BT within the military environment is the reliance upon a sufficient infrastructure required to maintain and support the broader network to enable inclusion and validation of the information therein. A visualisation of the 51% attack is provided in Annex D.[23]

Conclusion

Many military-related BT applications have been theorised by both industry as well as research communities, with frequent use-case reviews focusing on the realm of logistical supply and secured communications. Outside of the defence environment, the concept of BT is inclined towards the focus on decentralised communities such as cryptocurrencies, smart work contracts and proof-of-ownership initiatives. As a security-conscious public entity, the NZA through the NZDF should be actively investigating the variety of options for next-generational data encryption standards for both secured communications as well as data control measures. Key questions include assessments on where the NZA stands in regard to data mitigation risks as well as assessing the value of the information that the organisation gathers and stores.

Within this introductory article on the potential deployment of BT within military environments, we have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of distributed ledgers through the context of NZA operations. This analysis related to the implementation of blockchain technology provides the reader with a conceptualisation of the considerations required to deploy such technology, while also identifying use-cases within the NZA. This introductory article has left aside numerous possible future development opportunities that can be envisioned to prevent another possible Y2K of human-error. The Defence Blockchain, however, addresses the concept of decentralisation, with no central server or trusted party required as everything is centralised upon crypto proof rather than verbal and textual trust. We have reached an important juncture in the development of the fourth industrial revolution where with the right tools and resources, unprecedented opportunities and further discussions can only help prepare the NZA for the future-operating environments that are continually emerging outside the scope of existing future-force initiatives.

 

END NOTES

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1 The concept of soft and hardware corruption is explored within this publication; Julian Jang-Jaccard and Surya Nepal, “A Survey of emerging threats in cybersecurity” Journal of Computer and System Sciences, Vol.80(5), (2014), p. 977

2 To explore the basics of RSA encryption, this extremely reader-friendly analysis of mathematics; Daniel Rosenthal, David Rosenthal and Peter Rosenthal, A Readable Introduction to Real Mathematics – Sending Secret Messages, Toronto, Springer, Cham, 2014, ch.6

3 The future state of quantum computing; Stephen Ornes, “Code Wars” National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 114(11), (2017) p.2785

4 For a review of the impact upon New Zealand, this headline story from 1999; One News NZ), “Y2K Millennium bug squashed in New Zealand”, January 01, 2000, accessed August 19 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiN2umAf6Qk

5 The role of blockchain for collaboration; Lucas Mearian, “4 Ways blockchain is the new business collaboration tool” ComputerWorld, dated Jun 20, 2017, accessed July 06, 2019, https://search-proquest-com.helicon.vuw.ac.nz/docview/1911793120?accountid=14782

6 Blockchain technologies in data-verification; Dongdon Yue, Ruixuan Li, Yan Zhang, Wenlong Tan, Chengyi Peng, “Blockchain based Data Integrity Verification in P2P Cloud Storage” Proceedings of the International Conference on Parallel and Distributed Systems – ICPADS, Vol. 2018-, (2018) p.563

7 Ethereum Whitepaper; Vitalik Buterin, “Ethereum Whitepaper: A next-generation smart contract and decentralized application platform” Github, dated December 2013, accessed July 09, 2019, https://github.com/ethereum/wiki/wiki/White-Paper

8 Interesting to review the contents of the world’s first website; Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, “The World Wide Web” Cern, dated August 6, 1991, accessed August 01, 2019, http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html

9 The role of information in the 21st Century; Jasmine Desai, “Information: The Oil of the 21st Century”, Express Computer, dated January 31, 2012, accessed July 21, 2019, https://search-proquest-com.helicon.vuw.ac.nz/docview/919425197?accountid=14782

10 CA and FB; Claude Solnik, “Cambridge Analytica filing for bankruptcy”, New York, Long Island Business Review, 2018

11 Jim Isaak, Mina J Hanna, “User Data Privacy: Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and Privacy Protection” Computer, Vol. 51(8), (2018), p. 57

12 Betsy Cooper, “The dangerous data hack that you won’t even notice”, UC Berkeley, dated November 20, 2017, accessed August 08, 2019.

13 Ongoing efforts from CISCO to forecast the growth of global data and cloud-based IP traffic. Forecast out till 2021 with big observations; CISCO, “Cisco Global Cloud Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2016–2021 White Paper” CISCO, dated November 19, 2018, accessed August 09, 2019. Pg.21, 29.

14 US-DOD strategy for Digital modernisation forthwith outlined; Department of Defense, United States of America, “DoD Digital Modernization Strategy”, (July 12, 2019), accessed July 27 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/12/2002156622/-1/-1/1/DOD-DIGITAL-MODERNIZATION-STRATEGY-2019.PDF p. 48-49.

15 The original paper published on the internet in 1994, outlining the theory of smart contracts; Nick Szabo, “Smart Contracts”, dated 1994, accessed August 12, 2019, http://www.fon.hum.uva.nl/rob/Courses/InformationInSpeech/CDROM/Literature/LOTwinterschool2006/szabo.best.vwh.net/smart.contracts.html

16 To understand the difference between cybercrime and cybercriminals; review the following; Gary Perry, Abigail Scheg, “Reinterpreting the Role of the hacker in the Cyber-Security Paradigm”, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2015

16(i) The pros and cons of blockchain hacking; Timothy Summers, “Hacking        the Blockchain”, Modern Trader, Vol. 520(5), (2016), p. 79-82

17 The extent to which C-19 and blockchain technologies is yet to be fully realised. It is futile to expect a decentralised solution to the C-19 cure, although looking forwards to future pandemics we may have the opportunity to apply lessons-learnt; European Cluster Collaboration Platform (2020, 06 June). “Blockchain vs COVID-19: how to immediately react and to be prepared” Retrieved 08 July 2020, from https://clustercollaboration.eu/news/blockchain-vs-covid-19-how-immediate-react-and-be-prepared.com

18 Thanks to its capability of ensuring data immutability and public accessibility of data streams, Blockchain can increase the efficiency, reliability, and transparency of the overall supply chain, and optimise the inbound processes; Guido Perboli, Stefano Musson, Mariangela Rosano, “Blockchain in Logistics and Supply Chain: A Lean Approach for Designing Real-World Use Cases”, IEE Access, Vol. 6(1), (2018) p. 62020

19 Capabilities of blockchain within defence logistical command is analysed in detail here; Charbel Chedrawi, Pierette Howayeck, “The role of Blockchain Technology in Military Strategy formulation, a resource-based view on capabilities”, [Conference], Cognitive Analytics Management Conference 2018, (2018), American University of Beirut Lebanon, p. 6

20 The concept of data-validation has been extensively reviewed by USAF COL (Rtd) Vincent Alcazar; Vincent Alcazar, “Data you can trust – Blockchain technology”, Air & Space Power Journal, Vol. 31(2) (2017), p. 97-98

21 The challenges from deploying blockchain technologies, namely around susceptibilities written from the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis; Uuriintuya Batsaikhan, (2017) “Cryptoeconomics – the opportunities and challenges of blockchain”, St Louis, Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

22 Satoshi Nakamoto, (2008) “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” accessed July 01 2019, http://www.bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf p. 5

23 Blockchain miners are special-purpose designed machines with a robust processing power to calculate the unique solution to each SHA–256 transaction data string.

 

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