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How DLT is fighting the information war in Syria and saving lives

In a special interview, Mance Harmon of Hedera Hashgraph explains how distributed ledger technology is helping quash fake news and warn Syrians about airstrikes.

As the civil war in Syria drags into its ninth year, disinformation campaigns also continue to fuel the conflict. While the threat of fake news, deep fakes and manipulated information is growing, blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) are being harnessed to create an early warning system, fight the onslaught of disinformation, and save lives.

“The world we live in today is that the video, the pictures, deep fakes, people in general now understand that technology can make them see things that never happened,” Mance Harmon, CEO and co-founder of DLT developer Hedera Hashgraph, told Forkast.News.

Mance Harmon Hedera

Chicago-based social enterprise Hala Systems has adopted Hedera Hashgraph’s Consensus Service, a distributed ledger technology platform, to provide journalists as well as civilians a way to create an immutable digital record of war and other emergency events that they see or hear. The collected information not only can help deliver early warnings to Syria’s 2.1 million people but also be preserved, so that war criminals can later be held accountable.

See related article: Hedera Hashgraph provides provenance for data from Syrian war

Hala’s Sentry early warning system in Syria has been credited with reducing casualties from air strikes by 20 to 30%, saving hundreds of lives and preventing thousands of injuries, according to the company.

“What Hala is doing, along with our technology, is making it possible — if you believe that the source of the information is trustworthy and it’s verified when the information is stored with us, then in the future it becomes possible to prove that the information that was stored with us is not tampered with,” Harmon said.

According to Harmon, the key to maintaining the integrity of the information is that the data stored on the Hedera system cannot be tampered with after it is logged and timestamped. External parties can then review the entries to verify the authenticity of the information submitted.

“That is powerful because that means that the public knows that the technology is being used in the case of those video clips and the picture that they’re seen or whether it’s audio, it’s trustworthy in a way that others that don’t have the same technology behind it can’t be trusted,” Harmon said. “It’s subject to manipulation in ways that you can’t manipulate, if you’re using this technology.”

Some 86% of internet users have admitted to falling for fake news at least once, according to a 2019 survey by the Centre for International Governance Innovation. The survey’s respondents also say they support governments and internet companies’ efforts to combat the spread of disinformation.

“Decentralized technologies [like Hedera] should over time boost people’s confidence in the integrity of the data, which, of course, will have a far-reaching impact on society as a whole as this technology is used on a broader scale.”

Watch the full interview with Harmon and Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau to learn more about how distributed ledger technology is being used to fight disinformation in Syria, and how it could be applied for similar purposes around the world.

Highlights

  • How Hala Systems is using data to prevent civilian casualties: “When the sensors or observers detect an incoming airstrike, that information is broadcast via the sirens and via the app or to mobile phones to alert the civilians in the area. And so at a top-level, that’s how it notifies and civilians are able to have a few minutes to take cover and do the things that they might not otherwise have been able to do if they didn’t have that time of notification.”
  • DLT could help improve confidence in data: “Decentralized technologies like what we’re providing here at Hedera should over time boost people’s confidence in the integrity of the data, which, of course, will have a far-reaching impact on society as a whole as this technology is used on a broader scale.”
  • Trustworthiness will always be an issue: “What’s interesting is that there will always be the problem of knowing who is trustworthy as the original source versus derivative works.”
  • Decentralization helps maintain data integrity: “Even if [information submitters] don’t have the ability to upload that information in real-time, they still have it on their phone. They still have it on their camera or wherever. And when there’s availability to the internet at all, when there is a comlink from them to any of the nodes on a global basis, they can timestamp that information and still achieve the solution that they are trying to achieve. So, bringing down a single node, or even a few nodes, is not something that brings the solution offline in total.”

Full Transcript

Angie Lau: Where can we store evidence of war crimes, how do we battle rising disinformation and how can we hold war criminals to account? Welcome to Word on the Block, the series that takes a deeper dive into blockchain and the emerging technologies that shape our world, at the intersection of business, politics, and economy. It’s what we cover right here on Forkast.News. I’m Forkast Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau.

More than six million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, many now refugees, in what is now a nine-year conflict. And we know that facts are often in dispute. But a group of Syrian volunteers calling themselves the “White Helmets” wore mounted cameras on their heads to record the scenes on the ground of the Syrian civil war in the early days. The toll has been heavy, and perhaps now it’s time to let code take over.

Hedera Hashgraph has recently been selected by Hala Systems, this is a social enterprise that develops technologies to protect civilians from misinformation, to verify data provenance and remove centralized control of information. Joining me right now is the co-founder and CEO of Hedera, Mance Harmon. Mance, welcome back to the show.

Mance Harmon: Thank you, Angie, I’m glad to be back. Good to see you again.

Lau: Absolutely. I want to learn more. Our audience wants to learn more. We’ve been experiencing and observing and just watching — most of us very luckily from afar. But for those who are on the ground in Syria, it’s anything but. How does Hala Systems work, and how is distributed ledger technology going to be used to help protect that content that is not only produced by civilians but also in a way protects them as well?

Harmon: This is one of those projects that I’m very excited and humbled and proud to be a part of. The team there, at Hala, as well as Jonathan Dotan, have really done something unique and special with this technology. The system consists of a set of sirens, as well as remote sensors and devices on the ground in Syria. And there’s a contingent of observers, as you’ve already mentioned, who are equipped with cameras and recording equipment.

They’ve developed advanced algorithms that include natural language processing algorithms. They can distinguish between bomb blasts and fireworks, for example. When the sensors or observers detect an incoming airstrike, that information is broadcast via the sirens and via the app or to mobile phones to alert the civilians in the area. And so at a top-level, that’s how it notifies and civilians are able to have a few minutes to take cover and do the things that they might not otherwise have been able to do if they didn’t have that time of notification.

Lau: And this saves lives, obviously.

Harmon: It saves lives. Yes, of course, that’s the most important thing here.

Lau: You’re also recording a lot of important information, and you’re going to be storing that — that’s evidence of something.

Harmon: Yeah, Hedera is ensuring that the system — that information — can’t be maliciously tampered with. For the integrity of the system, it’s very important that that information is both verified and logged to the Hedera network to ensure that it’s authentic, timestamped and cannot be manipulated by other parties. Each event that comes in is logged through the Hedera Consensus Service. It’s signed by the issuing devices keys.

So the camera, for example, it receives a consensus timestamp by the whole of the Hedera network. This ensures that the data is better able to be trusted by supporting third parties and, if needed, the broader public due to its immutable and tamperproof properties. And that’s the role that Hedera plays in the solution as a whole.

Lau: You have a lot of experience here. Pre-blockchain, pre-DLT, you were a course director for cybersecurity at the U.S. Air Force Academy. It might have been a long time ago, but how do you think about it as you carry towards DLT and applications on the ground in real-world situations?

Harmon: Over the past two, three decades, the amount of data that we’ve been able to collect and we’re now able to collect today is enormous. There’s more data at our fingertips than ever before. But at the same time, the trust in that data is at an all-time low. So data for humanitarian purposes like this we see with Hala Systems in Syria is subject to mistrust by the public at large and centralized databases can be compromised.

Decentralized technologies like what we’re providing here at Hedera should over time boost people’s confidence in the integrity of the data, which, of course, will have a far-reaching impact on society as a whole as this technology is used on a broader scale.

Lau: That’s a great point because it’s obviously life and death, but it’s [also] which side are you on? And then do you doubt the data that you’re given? There’s just so many layers of distrust and fear and terror, quite frankly. Does DLT, and has Hala Systems experienced, that where what once might have been distrusted because of technology, that trust is restored?

Harmon: Well, exactly. The world we live in today is that the video, the pictures, deep fakes, people in general now understand that technology can make them see things that never happened. And what Hala is doing, along with our technology, is making it possible. If you believe that the source of the information is trustworthy and it’s verified when the information is stored with us, then in the future it becomes possible to prove that the information that was stored with us is not tampered with.

It’s the real authentic video clip or picture that was captured by those on the ground taking the original video. That is powerful because that means that the public that knows that the technology is being used in the case of those video clips and the picture that they’re seen or whether it’s audio, it’s trustworthy in a way that others that don’t have the same technology behind it can’t be trusted. It’s subject to manipulation in ways that you can’t manipulate. If you’re using this technology.

Lau: It’s almost a symptom of where we are right now, that distrust is really felt by a lot of people, whether in a war situation or a politicized situation, where if it is the source that is telling you and you distrust the source, then all of a sudden, even if it’s factual or it’s information that is important, that needs to be disseminated, then that is also immediately disregarded or distrusted.

And I wonder, obviously in a wartime situation that can either save your life or get you killed, where can we get to with DLT, that protects the civilians and uploaders of this content that protects them also from potential online harassments and threats as a result of what we have often seen both in Syria and in other trouble spots of state-backed disinformation campaigns? 

Harmon: What’s interesting is that there will always be the problem of knowing who is trustworthy as the original source versus derivative works. There are the people that are going to be on the ground, like the folks that are associated with the Hala Systems social project, that are doing this for pure motives and the right reasons. In some sense, I think that the public at large is going to look at them as an organization and just trust them in a way that they don’t trust mainstream media or governments. Because there is less scrutiny, perhaps, or less skepticism about the motives.

So it’s always the case that somebody is behind the camera, somebody is creating the original work, and we have to figure out which of those original works, those people behind those works are trustworthy and which are not. Assuming we can do that, then the technology comes into play in ensuring that the works themselves have not been tampered with.

So there’s the problem of identifying trustworthy sources that are capturing the works in the first place and then technically ensuring that the works themselves haven’t been tampered with. We, of course, do the second part, and Hala is focused on the first. And that’s why the combination of the two is important and we’re excited to be a part of it.

Lau: So, you explained Hala Systems, it’s got the support of the United Nations, the U.K. Foreign Commonwealth Development Office, the U.S. State Department, the list goes on and on. Do you see Hala Systems efforts and then using the technology, the DLT technology and leveraging that being benchmarked by other war-affected regions?

Harmon: Oh, I do. And that’s the great thing about being a network at the bottom of the stack, in that we’re providing that trust layer that’s at the very bottom of the technology stack for the solution that they brought to market, so to speak. They’ve built a fantastic platform, and as they gain users of that platform, like the organizations that you’ve listed, those users then become users of Hedera as well.

So we look for the ways that we can help other platforms, like Hala, build on the work that Hala is doing that would in turn then, of course, just be using the same technology that we’re providing. So, we’re very proud that Hala Systems has chosen to build on Hedera, and we look forward to an ongoing close relationship with them and those that they partner with.

Lau: Well, according to a 2019 report, Yemen, which is another trouble hotspot, accounted for the majority of internet shutdowns in the Middle East region. And in addition to that, there were reports from multiple trusted sources that the true number of Internet shutdowns in Yemen is actually far higher than originally documented.

So let’s talk about the centralized versus decentralized and the critical part, which is access to this information. How does DLT, potentially Hala Systems, circumvent and maybe help battle the decentralized shutdowns that we’re seeing in hotspots?

Harmon: What’s really interesting is that the solution is distributed, meaning that there are nodes that are running the same software all around the world. And they’re working in concert with one another to ensure that the network remains available on a global basis. So even if it’s the case that the Internet goes down in a certain location and it takes offline one of those nodes, it’s still the case that there are other nodes that are available on a global basis, presuming there’s a network connection that gets you to one of those nodes at all.

Then in the case here, even if they don’t have the ability to upload that information in real-time, they still have it on their phone. They still have it on their camera or wherever. However, they’ve captured that information. And when there’s availability to the internet at all, when there is a comlink from them to any of the nodes on a global basis, they can timestamp that information and still achieve the solution that they are trying to achieve. So, bringing down a single node, or even a few nodes, is not something that brings the solution offline in total.

Lau: What you’re talking about truly is what we all know to be self-protection, that if we hold the secret and nobody else knows, there’s danger in the person who’s keeping that piece of information. But if suddenly it’s out there and everybody knows there is protection there and I’m curious about what other applications we can apply here, we’re also experiencing a battle of a different kind against Covid-19, this is something that universally we are all battling right now, is there a way that that application of DLT is useful here?

Harmon: Well, yes, it’s the same technology, but applied in a different context, and specifically, it’s applied, in this case with, for example, Arizona State University — ASU. They have an application that they call a health check, it’s an app that is used by the students of the university, by the faculty of the university to help combat the Covid problem that we’re all dealing with here on a global basis.

So, when Covid came along, it was natural to take their existing infrastructure, their existing applications, try to enhance them in a way that they could combat the Covid problem on campus. They needed a way to work with students, faculty, staff to make sure that everyone was engaged with taking care of their own health and protecting those that are around them. And Safe Health Systems, a technology partner to ASU and working with us, had already worked out the details.

And so they brought in the solution that makes it possible for ASU to do Covid testing and record those results, do contact tracing, etc., knowing that those results are captured using our technology, their immutable and they can then be used by the health community at large for protecting the students and faculty on campus.

Lau: It’s incredible how facts can inform and protect us and really save lives, and then the absence of that, or the distrust of that, really puts us in a dangerous position. I think we have seen it not only in Covid, we have seen it in hot spots, in war-torn regions such as Syria, such as Yemen. But, this is the promise of the technology, and I think that this is what we all hold dear to.

Harmon: Yes, in this case, there are 74,000 students, there are 12,000 employees that all begin their mornings by using this app at ASU. They fill out a form, a survey of their health and whether or not they have symptoms, that is then used by the community at large there at the campus to make sure that the population is protected and stays healthy.

Lau: It’s how we take care of each other. Mance Harmon, thank you so much for this and sharing how that technology is being used at Hala Systems. And really, as we see the dissemination of DLT to really restore trust in information. So thank you so much for this and thanks for joining us on the show.

Harmon: Thank you. It’s good to be here again.

Lau: And thank you, everyone, for joining us on this latest episode of Word on the Block. I’m Angie Lau, Forkast.News editor-in-chief, until the next time.