Swedish telecom networks company Ericsson has built a system for ensuring data integrity, leveraging blockchain to underpin its growing presence in the cloud.
Erik Forsgren, the company’s director for portfolio management, said that the company has had its system up and running since January. It grew out of a partnership with GuardTime, a data security startup, first inked in 2014.
The company, which dates back to the late 1800s and employs over 100,000 people worldwide, is a major player in the global telecom solutions marketplace, reporting over $6bn in second-quarter sales for this year.
However, competition from China and a growing need to innovate in a fast-moving ecosystem has put the company on the defensive, pushing it to slash jobs and look to places like the cloud for new paths to growth.
But Ericsson is far from alone in exploring the technology in a bid to keep data honest. Blockchains have long looked at as a means for providing a record of how data changes over time, with startups and individual developers focusing on the question of data integrity using both the bitcoin blockchain and other implementations.
The state of Vermont even passed legislation earlier this year to provide a legal basis for blockchain-based information after toying with the idea of developing a record-keeping system that uses the technology (which was ultimately scuttled). It’s an area that has also attracted interest in the banking sector as well.
Forsgren explained that someone using the system is signing “fingerprints” of data, an approach that allows for efficient processing while still maintaining a mechanism for ensuring that information is timestamped and recorded whenever any change happens.
He told CoinDesk in a recent interview:
“What we are doing is running this global blockchain infrastructure. It is a private blockchain that you can then subscribe to and access and sign any time of data, you as a company. You can verify and sign any kind of data toward this blockchain.”
What Guardtime and Ericsson refer to as a “blockchain” isn’t one in the bitcoin sense, but is rather based on what the two firms call “keyless signature infrastructure”. It’s a technology application that has drawn interest from parties such as the government of Estonia.
“Instead of putting all of the data up in the blockchain, we only take fingerprints of the data,” he explained.
Cars on the blockchain
According to Ericsson, the technology holds the most potential in uses cases for which data needs to be trusted in real time. In a world that’s growing more connected by the day, there’s a corresponding need to keep all that data secure – and truthful.
In conversation, Forsgren pointed to the example of a connected car – plugged into a broader Internet of Things network – as one that illustrates how the technology can be leveraged to ascertain the veracity of certain types of data. Put more bluntly, blockchain might be the key to keeping your car’s computer from lying to either you, its manufacturer or whoever maintains it.
Take the case of the software being run inside the car. Whichever company is delivering that code to the car will want to keep track of when and where it is deployed, in order to maintain a history of updates delivered to a particular vehicle.
According to Forsgren, this also helps keep track of whether that software may have been tampered with somewhere along the way.
“First you develop software for the car, and you need to protect that supply chain, the software supply chain, all the way to your sub contractors, all the way to where your software is delivered to the car. Once the info is in the car, you want it to be verifiable in real time whenever you go out driving.”
This also applies to the concept of receiving (and storing) information received from a vehicle.
“It’s also important that this data is also the correct data and has not been manipulated in any way by the owner of the vehicle or anything external,” Forsgren explained. “Typical cases can be insurance cases, any claims made by someone when you have a dispute situation. You should be able to prove that your data is authentic at any time.”
Not bitcoin’s blockchain
The backbone for the system employed by Ericsson, through its partnership with GuardTime, is known as “keyless signature infrastructure”.
It’s not a blockchain like the one underpinning bitcoin, but according to Martin Frojd, head of product for cloud and data platforms for Ericsson, it provides a commercial-scale way to back up the integrity of critical information used by its clients.
“We are not storing customer information in our blocks. We are storing a fingerprint of that data, which is mathematically linked to the previous hashes in the hash tree,” he explained. “We see that as a huge benefit, especially in industrial uses, because it has the speed and it has the value of it, and you’re not exposing any customer data in the ledger.”
While the use of the term “blockchain” may be somewhat driven by marketing, the technology has attracted interest beyond Ericsson.
The Estonian government announced in 2015 that is is working with GuardTime to back up health records. Last month, the US Department of Defense, though its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), announced that it was awarding a $1.8m grant to GuardTime and a second firm, Galois, to pursue applications of its technology.
The fruits of the partnership with GuardTime has extended to Ericsson’s client base, which has expressed interest in the technology, according to Forsgren.
As a result, the company is pursuing a series of proofs-of-concept focused on applications in supply chain and cloud-based data management, for example. Forsgren also said that Ericsson is working with US tech conglomerate General Electric via its Predix cloud platform on similar applications.
Demurring on when the company might launch a commercial-scale product, Forsgren said that, as it stands, Ericsson is focused on blockchain research and development.
“For us, it’s still in an early phase,” he said.