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Cisco eyes blockchain messaging for better security

The decentralized data storage method of blockchain could make enterprise group messaging more secure. Cisco is among the vendors investigating the promise of blockchain messaging.

Consumer and enterprise technology vendors, including Cisco, have begun investigating ways to use the decentralized ledger of blockchain to make individual and group messaging more secure than today's products.

Blockchain is a method of recording digital transactions that rely on a distributed network of computers, rather than a centralized server. The technology first gained prominence as a financial instrument, allowing individuals to exchange virtual currencies like bitcoin without relying on third-party financial institutions.

Cisco recently updated a patent application to use blockchain technologies for group communications. On the consumer side, startups such as ySign, Howdoo and Crypviser Messenger are developing blockchain messaging apps.

Using blockchain to verify membership in communications channels could create "a tamper-resistant chronological account of group membership updates," according to Cisco's patent application. It could also be used to enable "end-to-end encryption of instant messaging, content sharing and streamed media," the patent said.

The vendor has already made security -- including traditional end-to-end encryption with customer-held keys -- a prominent selling point of its cloud-based team collaboration platform, Cisco Spark.

The decentralized storage of data through blockchain messaging would, in theory, prevent hackers from obtaining a company's entire chat history by breaking into a single server.

"Cisco might be looking into this technology for specific use cases that require a high level of privacy, such as those related to intellectual property or [mergers and acquisitions]," said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, an enterprise mobility analyst at 451 Research.

Blockchain messaging also makes it virtually impossible to alter chats that corporate employees have already sent, said Irwin Lazar, an analyst at Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill.

"While Spark currently supports end-to-end encryption, it's still, in theory, possible that someone could access a thread and go back and change past messages," Lazar said. "Blockchain wouldn't allow for that possibility."

A Cisco representative said the company had no product announcement related to the patent at this time.

"I expect blockchain technology will have an impact on enterprise messaging and collaboration, but it will not automatically displace existing solutions like Slack or Spark for that matter, which rely on encryption," Castañón-Martínez said.

Cisco is also looking into ways to use blockchain in network management. The blockchain ledger could make it easier to manage network appliances manufactured by different vendors by securely storing information about each device's current and past configurations.

Last fall, Cisco joined companies, including IBM, SAP and Intel, on the board of The Linux Foundation's Hyperledger Project, which is developing open source blockchain technologies for the enterprise.

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