Can Blockchain Provide Identity to Millions of Refugees? id2020 Debates Potential Use

Can Blockchain Provide Identity to Millions of Refugees? id2020 Debates Potential Use

I was honoured to join over 250 delegates from more than 50 technology businesses, advisory firms and NGOs at the recent inaugural ID2020 summit at the United Nations in New York to answer one of the world’s biggest challenges to social and financial inclusion: proof of legal identity.

The goal of ID2020 is to drive progress toward the realisation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, which aims to “provide legal identity to all, including birth registration, by 2030, and to help create a future where every human being has access to identity services.” Nearly two billion people are without legal identity, making them invisible to society and vulnerable to social, physical and economic abuse.

Identity is the first step to getting access to the financial system and helping to achieve greater financial inclusion.  Proof of identity opens many doors, including the opportunity to get a bank account and access to financial services.

Achieving this goal relies on the transparency that emerging technologies promise to bring – among them being blockchain.

“The current process of managing people’s identities in our digital age is inefficient and not very secure – as the many high-profile data breaches have demonstrated,” explained Valery Vavilov, CEO of BitFury. “Blockchain offers unparalleled security and efficiency. With blockchain-enabled technology, the customer would not need to show his ID containing his unique identifier and his home address to a complete stranger at the hospital, pharmacy or airport, but instead, could display on his phone a unique numerical/QR code-a cryptographic token-which would confirm that person’s identity.”

Vavilov said that the individual would have loaded his information onto the blockchain through a recognised provider. His firm is already working with the Republic of Georgia to add sensitive information such as land titles into a blockchain-based registry system to help curb corruption and enhance accountability in the country.

Another company doing similar work  is bespoke blockchain firm Credits, which trialled a successful project in the Isle of Man last year.

Nick Williamson, CEO Credits, has his doubts about using blockchain for digital identity. He believes blockchain can’t help the problem of establishing provenance of real-world identity in a vacuum. “While we have compelling thoughts around how to take established real-world identity and make the distribution and further provenance of it more streamlined via distributed ledgers, that isn’t a solution to the current plight of refugees.”

Whether we go down the route of blockchain or not, Sarah Mendelson, U.S. Representative on the Economic and Social Council at the United Nations, urged those developing technology for good “to do it with survivors in the room” at ID2020 – to understand the challenges endured by displaced people –and the risks they face both with and without identity.

But one the biggest issues is a trust deficit between individuals and governments.

Jaz O’Hara, co-founder of The Worldwide Tribe, a charity that supports refugees in camps and galvinises humanitarian support by sharing survivor stories, spoke of the fear that displaced people had about sharing personal information with authorities. “They don’t know where their data is going – it could fall into the wrong hands- such as bad governments, and the data that should be helping them –like their birth certificates, can be used against them. These people are fleeing persecution – they don’t want to share identification.”

Good governance and leadership from public and private entities is key to achieving ID2020’s goals. Finding a way to “future proof the misuse of data” and creating a system that works together is also crucial to success, according to Andrew Painter, Senior Policy Adviser. Vinny Lingham, CEO of Civic Technologies suggested ways of eliminating new account fraud and preventing online identity theft.  Creating safe identities would be a “game changer for financial inclusion,” said FinTech visionary Chris Skinner.

Many of the experts at the summit concluded that important data should be in a global, public database. The next challenge is identifying who the owners of this data should be and creating an effective checks and balance process to protect the most vulnerable.

Anne De la Roche, Chief of Operations at United Nations Office for Partnerships, explained that ID2020 is on “everybody’s agenda” and we must find ways to harness the willingness to help from all levels of society.

“Doing things for humanitarian purposes shouldn’t have a return on investment, but it has to happen,” said Jessica Shannon, Partner of Global Governance and Anti-corruption at PwC. “Where’s the ROI for us? We need to approach this from a business perspective too.”

One response is the chance of adding many people into the formal economy and giving them access to financial services. The untapped market opportunity of the unbanked is notable. According to the Gates Foundation, business models aimed at the poor can lift millions out of poverty and generate revenues that can help businesses scale up. A one per cent increase in financial inclusion adds 3.6 per cent in GDP.

Ray Kimble, GSMA Advisor stressed the need to “identifying specific services and then finding a solution” by looking at what is needed from the perspective of government, business and the individual. Collaboration between innovation and society is also important.

“We are all stakeholders in the global community, and there’s no other alternative but to act on the impulse to change,” explained the founder of the ID2020 initiative John Edge. “There has to be a technological solution.”