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Securing the blockchain

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Cryptocurrencies are on the increase, with at least 100 active, suitably valuated cryptocurrencies being used as tender. However, as some cryptocurrencies have discovered, they are not completely infallible, writes SAURABH KUMAR, CEO of In2IT Tech.

The benefit of Bitcoin, and other virtual digital cryptocurrencies, lies in their anonymity, and with blockchain-based technologies, they are typically thought to be incredibly secure as well. However, as some cryptocurrencies have discovered, they are not completely infallible – and this is doing some damage to the blockchain’s reputation.

What makes the blockchain so secure?

“Normal” transactions, using traditional currency, require a verification process between two parties, typically institutions such as banks or the Reserve Bank. Blockchain based transactions are no different, however the verification process is decentralised and spread across multiple verification points, or nodes. No single party controls any or all aspects of the transaction and verification takes place based on consensus.

Due to the sheer number of nodes that need to verify and approve a transaction, it is incredibly difficult to hack, breach or otherwise intercept a transaction on the blockchain. This has resulted in financial institutions across the globe exploring the blockchain’s potential in other applications.

So why the concern?

Recent hacks that have led to losses of millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency, have stirred up uncertainty within businesses who are exploring the blockchain for trading requirements as well as other areas of business.

In May 2016, the DAO (Decentralised Autonomous Organisation) was launched, and hacked. This project uses cryptocurrency platform Ethereum to crowd fund a decentralised venture capital fund. $70 million dollars in Ether (Ethereum currency) was stolen. At the end of July 2016, Bitfinex, a cryptocurrency exchange, experienced a serious breach resulting in the theft of 120 000 bitcoins. Also in July 2016, Steemit, a blockchain-based blogging platform, was hacked. This hack resulted in the loss of approximately $85 000 in cryptocurrency. Other cryptocurrency platforms to fall victim to hacks include Krypton and Shift, two Ethereum-based blockchains.

While hacking, or otherwise breaching and intercepting, the blockchain is incredibly difficult, these examples show us that it is not impermeable. Companies need to bear in mind that cryptocurrency – successfully implemented in the blockchain –  is still a relatively new technology and, as with any less-than-fully-mature technology, its flaws are yet to be fully realised.

That doesn’t mean that the technology should be discarded or that blockchain investments should be abandoned. Indeed, it is only through continued exploration and ongoing use that one will discover the weaknesses in the blockchain’s armour – and make it stronger than ever.

Addressing the flaws, as they stand

One of the inherent flaws of cryptocurrency lies not with the transactional phase, which takes place on the blockchain, but with its storage. The actual transaction is incredibly secure but, once the transaction has occurred, the parties need to store their cryptocurrency. In a world where everything is connected and touches the Web, storage systems for cryptocurrencies are no different – and are, therefore, accessible by determined cybercriminals. Many large organisations are addressing this by revisiting a siloed approach to storage, using cold storage that is completely cut off from the Internet

Broad-level security on either side is also a concern. Again, while the actual transaction may be secure, the end points might not be. It is possible to intercept the transfer or receipt of cryptocurrencies at either end of the transaction, so trust between parties remains of paramount importance. To respond to this, businesses are looking at private blockchains and not public ones. Private blockchains require a more interpersonal level of transaction and all nodes are known, and pre-approved prior to transacting.

Finally, because the technology resides on underlying networks, the networking design needs to be well thought out and planned with security as top-of-mind. Security must form part of the initial architecture, catering for all manner of current and potential threats so as to minimise any risk of breach through touchpoints on the network.

The future of the blockchain

There are exciting times ahead, for both the future of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain. The world consists of a series of transactions and exchanges, and the blockchain can be applied to virtually every single use case, with careful planning and consideration.

With care and foresight – and an in depth knowledge of the current security landscape of the blockchain – businesses can leverage this technology in a safe, secure and successful fashion, enabling a world of possibilities.

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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