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How the Blockchain Could Protect California’s Aquifer

How the Blockchain Could Protect California’s Aquifer

California is sinking. In the Central Valley, the most productive agricultural region in the US, some areas drop an inch or two per year. Telephone poles slump, roads crack, canals fail. In time, all that sinking adds up. A recent state survey found one patch of farmland off I-5 near the town of Arbuckle had fallen 2 feet in nine years.The culprit: overdrafted aquifers. The process speeds up during periods of drought, when rivers run dry and farmers scramble to find other ways to water their fields. “It’s a tragedy of the commons situation,” says Alex Johnson, fund director for the Freshwater Trust, a conservation nonprofit. “Everyone is incentivized to pull as much [water] as they can as fast as they can.” Usually, that means less water for future droughts; the rare wet years in between fail to replenish California’s subterranean emergency fund.That’s poised to change under new state rules. A 2014 state law for the first time laid out guidelines for stabilizing vulnerable groundwater basins. It largely left the task of meeting those goals to local groups, who were asked to develop plans to reduce their use to a sustainable level by 2040. In the most parched areas of the state, those plans are due next year. The new rules come with a potential sweetener: the ability to sell groundwater to neighbors who can make better use of it. Given the option of selling, a farmer might, for example, switch to a less water-intensive crop—say, from alfalfa to strawberries. It’s a local cap-and-trade regime for groundwater, basically.Sounds good, in theory. But the question is how local farm groups are supposed to get those markets started and trade a resource that, until now, has been fiercely contested but barely even tracked.In Solano County, near Sacramento, Johnson is working on what he says could be a model for parched ag regions around the state. It involves throwing a lot of tech at the problem. Last month, working with IBM and a company called SweetSense, Johnson’s team began deploying simple, solar-powered sensors, originally developed to monitor creaky groundwater pumps in East Africa. The sensors will be used to detect how much water is flowing in real-time. Since cell service is poor, the data will be sent via pint-sized satellites known as cubesats, courtesy of a startup called Swarm. Farmers will use that data to trade their water on (what else?) a blockchain platform.Water on the blockchain? Your eye-roll is forgiven. But local groundwater trading, in one form or another, is likely to soon become a force in California agriculture, says Ellen Hanak, director of water policy at the Public Policy Institute of California. In a study published in February, Hanak found that to comply with the 2014 law, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley south of Sacramento could be forced to leave 15 percent of their fields fallow each year. That translates to about $3.5 billion in lost crops. Local groundwater trading, she says, could reduce the losses by nearly half, simply by encouraging a better distribution of water.So far, there hasn’t been much progress toward setting up those markets. While surface water trading is common in California, governed by a warren of statutes and water rights, there’s no similar framework for groundwater trading. And it has unique complications. To start, water users need to form local groups and agree on who gets what allocation to start, which could be a years-long process. Then come the geological headaches. The geography of underground aquifers is mysterious; what looks like a distinct basin might, in fact, be linked to another or divvied into smaller parts. If a market isn’t designed to take those complexities into account, UC Berkeley researchers say, water trading could inadvertently suck part of an aquifer dry. But the biggest problem may be accounting: a reliable way to tell how much water is pumped, and by whom, to keep the water traders honest.In Solano County, Johnson is hoping to prove the new tech could help water users better understand their water use and come to a consensus. The idea, he says, is to build a system that’s cheap (hence the sensors developed for rural East Africa) and trustworthy. They’re testing it in a place with relatively low stakes, he notes. Thanks to its proximity to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the region’s groundwater situation isn’t particularly dire. But the region still needs to come up with a groundwater plan that incorporates a potentially drier future. “What we’re trying to do is make sure the plan is flexible,” says Chris Lee, an environmental specialist in the Solano County Water Agency. “Where we can get away without installing $4,000 water gauges, using something like satellite imagery or these sensors, we’ll absolutely do that.”It’s on the point of trust where blockchain is helpful, says Johnson. “Water users are a suspicious bunch. They don’t love government interference and suspect other water users are going over their allocations,” he says. That makes water and blockchain a good fit, he argues: It allows a group of people who don’t necessarily trust each other to make deals, without the need for third-party oversight. The plan, when the blockchain pilot starts this summer, is to allow only landowners to see their water use data. The deals themselves will be conducted via smart contracts—computer programs that execute when certain conditions, such as pumping levels, are met.It’s unclear whether farmers will find the whiz-bang of blockchain and sensors useful in practice. But Johnson says that’s the point of testing in Solano before going to areas where groundwater cuts will be more divisive and drastic. As Hanak points out, changes—and likely, new technology—are coming, but it’ll likely be a lengthy pivot. “It’ll all depend on how comfortable people are working together,” she says. “We’re in the early days of this.”More Great WIRED StoriesThe quietly lucrative business of donating human eggsAre we there yet? A reality check on self-driving carsFuturism has led to fascism. It could happen againWhat gets lost in the black horror renaissanceHow a scammy phone call led to the robocall king📱 Torn between the latest phones? Never fear—check out our iPhone buying guide and favorite Android phones📩 Hungry for even more deep dives on your next favorite topic? Sign up for the Backchannel newsletter
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Register Lecture: Hidden heroes of Alan Turing’s Enigma

Live code-breaking and beer A curse follows Enigma, the cryptography device deployed by Adolf Hitler’s military during the WWII to protect their Morse communications from the Allies. That curse? Invisibility. Alan Turing has – now – become intrinsically linked with cracking Enigma, a machine of fiendish complexity capable of 159 million, million, million (1.59×1020) settings…

Register Lecture: Hidden heroes of Alan Turing’s Enigma

Live code-breaking and beer

A curse follows Enigma, the cryptography device deployed by Adolf Hitler’s military during the WWII to protect their Morse communications from the Allies. That curse? Invisibility.

Alan Turing has – now – become intrinsically linked with cracking Enigma, a machine of fiendish complexity capable of 159 million, million, million (1.59×1020) settings that demanded the perfect marriage of mathematics and engineering to break. Turing’s work would blow open secrets that helped alter the war – for example, alerting the RAF to Luftwaffe raids during the Battle of Britain. And yet, Turing received little by way of the recognition he deserved for decades – quite the opposite, in fact.

But Turing is not the only one to have suffered Enigma’s curse of invisibility. Join The National Museum of Computing on June 26 for a special Register lecture journey back 80 years to the eve of the Second World War, to hear the stories of those behind Turing.

Hear about who provided a critical leg-up to the struggling English in cracking Enigma and who helped build the Bombe – the device to mechanise the mathematics of code breaking. Eight decades after the start of the War, TNMOC will go inside the pioneering work of the Polish General Staff Cipher Bureau in Warsaw and shine a light on the roles of Gordon Welchman and Doc Keen, the long-overlooked Bombe engineering team lead, at Bletchley. Together, they helped put code-breaking at Bletchley Park on an industrial footing.

Your guide for this crypto history trip will be Paul Kellar MBE, a leading member of the Bombe Rebuild project – based at TNMOC as a working tribute to those who contributed to breaking the Enigma.

Starring with Paul will be a working Enigma to help demonstrate “knowing your enemy” and illustrate how the Bombe could attack and break the Enigma on a daily basis. You will get the opportunity, too, to participate in a live code-cracking exercise with Checking Machine – the last stage in recovering the Key of the Day after the Bombe had found the crucial settings.

Join fellow Reg readers with the TNMOC crypto historians and their machines at the Rugby Tavern, 19 Great James St, London, WC1N 3ES. Doors open at 18:30 BST with Paul taking the mic at 19:00. An audience question-and-answer session will follow a break to re-charge mind and grey matter. Get your ticket here. ®

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Breaking Up Facebook ‘Won’t Be Enough,’ Says Morgan Stanley Boss. Here’s His Proposal.

Breaking Up Facebook ‘Won’t Be Enough,’ Says Morgan Stanley Boss. Here’s His Proposal.

New York City’s just-concluded “blockchain week” was palpably more subdued than it has been in years past. (Or maybe I was just not invited back to the parties after my 2018 travelogue.)
In any case, I took a brief break from the madness of the Fortune 500 issue close to drop by the Consensus conference, the week’s marquee event, where I moderated a security-themed panel on Monday. My panelists were Tom Glocer, the lead board director of Morgan Stanley and former chief executive of Thomson Reuters, and Nadav Zafrir, the CEO of startup foundry Team8 and former head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Cyber Command and Unit 8200, Israel’s equivalent of the U.S.’s National Security Agency. (For a recording, see video No. 15 here.)

Below are some soundbites from our conversation. I asked Glocer about a post he had published in the fall on his excellent personal blog in which he pondered who, or what, should own people’s data. His response imagined a world in which people might own their own information and where they would, using individual digital wallets, license the rights to corporations.

Rather than the current situation where we just weren’t paying attention and Google and Facebook, etc., built up huge caches of our private information, you would have the choice to sell Google your search history in return for a micropayment. Or you would sell Apple your photos in return for a micropayment, etc. I think it’s an interesting way of turning the current model on its head. But we’re not going to get there without some very significant government intervention along the lines of the debate that’s been raging about Facebook. Tech alone won’t achieve this jiu-jitsu move.

Since he brought it up, I asked Glocer for his thoughts on breaking up Facebook.

Just breaking up Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp won’t be enough. Facebook has over 2.5 billion folks. If you really wanted to go after them, I think you would have to go deeper and essentially declare a date by which they’d have to erase all of the data they’ve achieved to date and start fresh with what I’d call an informed consent and maybe, yes, micropayments. There’s no intrinsic reason why it’s awful that [Facebook] owns Instagram and WhatsApp…. If Mark [Zuckerberg] came out and just declared that on June 30th of next year we’re going to wipe out our histories—here’s your chance to download your own, in case you want to keep it, and here are the new rules of the road that you get to explicitly opt into—I would leave all those companies in his world.

The audience tended to agree. When I asked them whether Facebook should get the Sherman Anti-Trust treatment, only about a third of the crowd raised their hands.

Facebook, through the malicious hijacking of its targeted marketing machinery, has greatly contributed to an erosion of faith in traditional institutions. Nadav Zafrir summed up the predicament well. When I asked him what is the most pressing, most frightening threat the world faces, he replied without hesitation.

In one word: Trust. We are now in a world where it’s very hard for us to trust the simple things that, as my generation grew up, we were accustomed to trusting—our democracies. Our voting systems…. The irony is that the blockchain has a great potential to offer that [trust], yet it has become synonymous almost with the opposite…. At the end of the day attackers are human. They’re ROI [return on investment]-driven. They’re not super-ninjas or super-humans. They have their limitations. They have their vulnerabilities…. It’s an asymmetric battle when the attackers only need to find one single point of failure in the whole system and it’s game over. Hence, if we take that single point of failure and distribute it in a way where attackers need to hack everybody simultaneously and get everybody’s consensus, we’re flipping the asymmetry and taking control of the situation.

Of course, retaking control of the situation is no simple task, even with the advent of blockchain technology. Zuckerberg is, for his part, exploring how he might reestablish the foundations of his media empire on the footing of blockchains, cryptography, and private messaging. With all the consumer backlash and heat from regulators, it will no doubt take expert jiu-jitsu to pull off.
May the groundwork commence.
A version of this article first appeared in Cyber Saturday, the weekend edition of Fortune’s tech newsletter Data Sheet. Sign up here.

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