Blood diamonds, stolen cars, sweatshops: Blockchain stops all that

The technology is poised to change how many companies operate.

Brian Behlendorf: Ginni Rometty, who's the CEO of IBM, said she believed that blockchain technology will be to transactions what the Internet was to information, meaning it will be pervasive across all industries that touch transactions — which is all of them. They all deal with money, they all deal with tracking product and the handoffs of value from one party to another. So unless you're in a business that does nothing of value, at some point blockchain technology will touch what you're doing. And for some businesses it will radically transform who they are and what they do.

So one of the most intriguing use cases that really caught my attention when I first started to dive into this technology landscape was the use of distributed ledgers for supply chain provenance. Partly as a way to make that industry more efficient, more collaborative, more transparent, but also as a way to try to fight or track where objects came from and make sure they came from the right places, and a great example of this is the diamond industry. The diamond industry starting about 20 years ago has had a real serious political top-down commitment to prevent blood diamonds from entering circulation, blood diamonds being diamonds that came from mines that involve slave labor, that perhaps were used as payment for illicit products and services — like these are diamonds that had unclear provenance, and the whole goal was to enable somebody buying a diamond at the retail channel to know all the way back to the mine that it came from and that between points A and B it was in good hands.

Right now when you try to buy a diamond and see that provenance you maybe get a certificate with a bunch of stamps on it, but what does that mean to you? What does that mean to anybody? So the diamond industry has realized that they need to transform that process into something that is more of a distributed ledger, in fact is an implementation of a distributed ledger, as a way to allow all the parties involved in the diamond process to record a transaction every time that they transfer diamonds from the mine to the refinery to like the place where it's worked on to the distributer out to the retail channel, each of those parties would be a participant on that ledger, and when they handed diamonds off or they received a package of diamonds would confirm and write transaction saying "I sent this/I received this" so that we have this unbreakable chain going all the way back to the mine of where these diamonds came from. And we can deal with parties who themselves might not have a long history, a deep history of involvement, but if they have these digital signatures, which would be really difficult if not impossible to forge, then they could participate and be a part of this process.

And we might eventually get to a model that looks somewhat like when you buy a car you register that car in a title system that if your car gets stolen you can go and say, "Well no, actually, I own that," or if somebody tried to steal your car and sell it to somebody else without your consent that's tracked by the title system. We'll probably get to a point where your ability to sell a diamond of certain expense or quality or higher is based on being able to show that your ownership is recorded in this ledger, which would do a tremendous amount to try to keep bad product from entering the market.

That I think would do a lot to help reinforce the trust in that market. And by the way, it might create a marketplace for whistleblowing.

Some factories, for example, that employ a lot of human labor, they try to ensure that the temperature inside these factories remains at a certain temperature range. So if you had sensors collecting that data and tracking along with the product that comes through, so you understood: Okay, this is a product that was made in an environment that meets all of our criteria for the creation of these products.

A situation where a factory collapsed in Bangladesh that was being used to manufacture many of the brands that you see today at any major department store—and this was not only a true disaster in that hundreds of people perished, but also an economic disaster for the brands whose products were there and the suppliers who were bringing that product forward, because there was a clear sense that many of these brand like the Gap who did invest quite a bit in trying to upgrade their sources of supply to come from high-quality manufacturers, to come from people who cared about working conditions, who cared about raising the floor, raising the standards for labor in their industries. Many of them had no idea where their products actually were coming from. Many of these brands had very little idea.

So in the textile and clothing industry there's been a tremendous push to upgrade their supply chains to try to reward manufacturers in countries like Bangladesh or Thailand or India or even here in the U.S., reward them for improving their labor standards, improving the quality of manufacturing and paying them extra for it. The problem is when it's easy for somebody to slip in product into that supply chain without all of that quality control, without that extra concern, then it hurts everybody. It hurts those manufacturers who've invested more to create higher quality products and a better story behind the sourcing of that product. So there a distributed ledger would be really helpful to try to understand: where are these products coming from? Where are the sources coming from? That sort of thing.

The other use case that's really intriguing to me is seafood. There's plenty of international systems out there that track the quotas and the allowed catches and allowed regions for fish, different species of fish; there's practically an international organization for each species it seems. And there's rules that tell fisherman where they're allowed to catch and which countries are allowed to ingest those catches and then package them and ship them out. And no surprise, there's a tremendous amount of piracy, there's a tremendous amount of illegal fish catching, there's a tremendous amount of one kind of fish being passed off as another kind and then making its way through the supply chain, a tremendous amount of fraud that's added to it as it's handed off and finally ends up on your plate. If you ordered seabass, chances are it's not actually seabass in front of you, and chances are it was caught somewhere illegally rather than in the allowed areas.

So that industry is now starting to also take a look at: how do we use blockchain's distributed ledger technologies to make the provenance tracking of that system much more airtight so that we know where it comes from, we know who it's been handed off to? And more importantly how do we add sensor data from IoT devices that say tamperproof GPS tracking, data collection devices on the boats themselves to sensor data from ports that see when boats come in, to satellite data back that can track and see at high enough resolution when the boats are coming and going. All of this data put together to try to say "Here's the formal provenance record, and here's all the sensor data that corroborates all that, and by the way here's a place where all the data doesn't line up and we might want to look more closely at that and see if some fraud happened there." All of this for the purpose of making sure that we have sustainable fisheries in the ocean and to make sure that the product you buy when it says sustainably caught or wild salmon or whatever is actually the product that you think you're buying.

  • Blockchain technology, as a digital ledger for economic transactions, is poised to "radically" impact companies across the board.
  • It may help reinforce the trust in certain markets as sensors collect data throughout production.
  • Blockchain might also create a marketplace for whistleblowing.

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Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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