Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, man does not lose his being in the society in which he lives. Man’s life is independent. He is born not for the development of the society alone, but for the development of his self. — Ambedkar
Self-sovereign identity is a scarcely developed resource, accessible only by a tech-savvy few in mostly developed countries. With the advent of blockchain technology and its application to identity management through projects like Civic and uPort, the layman’s ability to exclusively maintain her own data is gradually becoming a reality.
But, in developing countries, a whole host of infrastructural and geo-political problems prevent a massive market of ‘identity-non-consumers” from freely transacting and exchanging their identity and associated attributes in any context they see fit.
We see this most often within refugee communities, where typical users don’t have access to smart phones (or if they do, it is for a very temporary period of time). The lack of a smartphone in today’s self-sovereign blockchain market makes it very difficult to even develop an immutable identity, let alone associate it with off-chain attributes over time.
In fact, most developing nations within Africa and the Middle East have very low smartphone consumer penetration, in tangent with sometimes unstable governance that makes establishing a technology-centric economy especially difficult. The flip-phone economy supports millions of citizens across these regions and effectively prevents entire communities from participating in the revived self-sovereign identity revolution.
For those developing markets maturing as consumers begin to adopt smartphones, these communities are relying more heavily on Android operating systems than anything else, so iOS-only/iOS-first blockchain identity solutions do nothing to aid potential users for which a self-sovereign identity is most helpful.
Authoritarian Control over Identity
Citizenry is fundamentally defined differently in authoritarian countries. From birth certificates to migration control, official documents are a tool of control. In many cases, citizen assets are monitored and controlled, making even remittances an easily forfeitable ‘luxury.’ One of the most powerful features of a self-sovereign identity is the ability to privately transact resources without the fear of a break in confidentiality. In nation-states that are geo-politically aligned against external aid to their respective citizenries, charitable transactions like wire-transfers and shipments can easily be either blocked, held, or altogether confiscated, never achieving their intended purpose of relieving the recipient.
The very existence of Authoritarian states in the modern age demonstrates that technology can just as easily be leveraged as a tool of absolute control as it can unlock unfettered freedom. Self-sovereign identity isn’t a silver bullet, and if we don’t think about it/build it carefully, malicious actors could still capitalize on it as an element of control. Blockchain identities have, for the most part, remained pseudo-anonymous, from which real-life identities could be extracted given the transactional behavior of the agent under investigation. Governments could easily use state-sponsored machine learning algorithms to monitor public blockchain activity to gain insight on the lower level activity of their citizens if blockchain architects aren’t careful in the way they align transaction permissions and public/private state variables.
A perfect example of this is how the FBI caught the creator of The Silk Road. The implicit belief that Bitcoin transactions at the time were completely anonymous was a misled presumption, particularly if one were to use the same public address for all their transaction. The latter, in tangent with web trackers and cookies, small pieces of code deliberately embedded into websites that send information to third parties about the way people use the site, make it much easier to infer real-life identities from crypto-transactions online.
In cases of Child Trafficking, some citizens in developing nations have no identification whatsoever, making it impossible for undocumented individuals to transact altogether, let alone take refuge in another state. Lack of documentation makes these ‘lost citizens’ easier to commodify within the human trafficking market, helping the global supply chain of sex trafficking and slavery continue to exist with minimal boarder checkpoint obstacles.
For example, (according to a Reuters report) many children born in Moldova do not have official identity documents, making them attractive for sex trafficking because they’re outside the normal system where governments track the existence of its citizens.
In circumstances like these, an immutable identity is a necessity, rather than a trendy feature of having an iPhone. It seems that a Blockchain-based, self-sovereign identity has far more utility in the social impact space than it does in developed nations, as the majority of the citizenry of the latter fiendishly rely upon centralized data repositories to project “who they are” online, making the use of a uPort or Civic a parallel commodity rather than a behavioral change in identity management.
Developing Resistant, Immutable, Self-Sovereignty
Self-sovereignty must be smartphone resistant, where identity and capital can be securely controlled within developing economy infrastructures. SMS or biomarker-enabled (face, fingerprint) transactions on the blockchain signed by SHA256 hashed passcodes (a potential combination of ID #, phone #, name, and secret pin) or perceptual image hashes could help introduce the rest of the world to the liberty of immutable, digital identity.
Leveraging governmental and NGO partnerships to develop the beginnings of nationally/internationally utilized blockchain protocols will certainly help mature the technology. Building Blocks is a perfect example of how organizational alignment around solving a niche problem can be a success. To replicate such success and scale it across multiple verticals, particularly within the social impact space, centralized systems need to identify, propose, and experiment with blockchain architectures on the ground in order to build out the base infrastructure of a decentralized, social good economy. These developments extend beyond establishing self-sovereign identity to (but not limited to):
- Using educational credentials across boarders
- Building ‘work-in’ micro-economies and offer impoverished communities alternative ways to increase their quality of life
- Increasing overall public spending transparency
However, it is of the utmost importance that these identities are not centralized, and that governments, over time, solely have permissioned access to tertiary attributes associated with someone’s identity, as to not replicate the symptoms of a surveillance state that we’ve come to realize exists even in the U.S. Rather, identity signatures like facial recognition (bio-marker) should be authenticated against a perceptually hashed level of confidence and uniquely registered as to prevent identity fraud and ensure that only one registrant can activate an account (and not fail like the iPhone X).
Of course, there’s a conversation of ethics to be had when it comes to the use of biomarkers specifically. Protocols that do leverage unique biomarkers “on-chain” must ensure its users that there exists complete transactional anonymity with the usage of most-likely dynamic public addresses (as to not be easily tracked by public blockchain monitoring algorithms). Unique identifiers like an individual’s face, fingerprint, or very DNA must be protected from centralized use — lest true freedom be completely lost.
Creating New Value via Blockchain-Based Economies
Assigning Blockchain identities across vulnerable populations could expose those communities to utility-based micro-economies, where new value can be realized between community members rather than from dysfunctional governments and/or abusive trickle down economics, particularly in natural resource-rich states. Establishing immutable identity could serve as the foundation for additional, decentralized protocols to be implemented, solving other issues like economic inequality (the cost of being banked) and transactional illiquidity (in economies experiencing hyperinflation) via the use of cryptocurrency.
We’ve already seen the development of these blockchain-based micro-economies in the social impact space successfully redefine value in 2017 with the implementation of the United Nation’s Building Blocks program, which enabled 10K+ refugees in Jordan’s Azraq camp pay for their food by means of entitlements recorded on a blockchain-based computing platform.
Another example is the implementation of Amply (now IXO), a digital identity blockchain application being used to replace an existing paper-based system to register children for a government funded pre-school subsidy in South Africa. Service providers use the mobile app to verify children’s attendance at classes and to capture other useful information. This will increase trust in the funding mechanism and make funding available to more children who need it. It will save administration time and costs.
In fact, social impact blockchain use cases have been the most successful, in-production demonstrations of the the emerging technology’s potential across all verticals (yes, including private and enterprise!). Here’s a list of working blockchain solutions within the social impact ‘market,’ many of which are Consensys Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition (BSIC) members!
Solving Jobs to be Done
Within both these blockchain micro-economies, the participants didn’t need to deal with the complex nuances of volatile cryptocurrencies or token sales — the application solved a problem fit for only a decentralized solution to attend to. Blockchain will only ever scale within the social impact space when it is attending to a job that needs to be done. It should be seen as a use-case specific, back-end technology that requires the same UX best practices as any other application of technology.