Digital Birth Certificates for Refugees on the Bitcoin Blockchain
Last March I applied for a chance to visit Rome and participate in the Harvard World Model United Nations; a collegiate-level conference to discuss world issues and generate solutions. The trip was organized by Prince Sultan University, my university in Riyadh.
I was told students who typically attend these events are Political Science or Law students. And I would probably not be selected as someone studying Computer Science.
Thankfully I was chosen for an interview, then received an email with a variety of questions. The one that struck me the most was:
How can we use technology to help in global issues like the Syria Refugee Crisis?
I had to provide the answers in presentation form the next day, so I called my friend Tey, a refugee himself residing in the Netherlands.
Tey is a candidate for an MSc. in Digital Currencies taught by the University of Nicosia. His passion for bitcoin grew after taking the free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on digital currencies. The program has helped him see beyond the financial settings of digital currency applications. We met on a Bitcoin facebook group, we quickly discovered we were very passionate about bitcoin and it’s various potential — and I came to visit him in the Netherlands several times whenever I had the chance.
For years now Tey and I have been discussing different uses of a unique emerging technology — the Bitcoin blockchain. It can be described as a decentralized distributed database that serves as a permanent online record. It powers digital currencies like bitcoin, and we wanted to prove its capability in tackling serious, non-financial issues as well.
Problem Case Scenario 1 — Tey’s Story
Let me give you some background on Tey. Let’s take a look at where his birthplace is on his driver’s license:
On the field for his place of birth (red box), it says Onbekend or Unknown.
The Netherlands Vehicle Authority (the issuing party) can’t verify where Tey was born, because he can’t provide an original birth certificate. Tey is a Syrian national, born in Kuwait, and when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait City in 1990, the records where his birth certificate was stored were permanently destroyed. Tey’s possibility for proving the existence of those documents and their record has become non-existent.
Many refugees today suffer from similar circumstances. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that there are 65 Million displaced people[pdf], 10 million of them are completely stateless. Asylum seekers or people escaping war or natural disasters have to maintain their paperwork that is often lost or destroyed as a byproduct of their misfortune.
Official documents must never be susceptible to permanent loss by war or natural disasters.
Problem Case Scenario 2— Arjun’s Story
Arjun is a medical school graduate from India. He got a job offer at a hospital in the United States. The university that issued his degree is a reputable institution. But Arjun has been patiently waiting for weeks, uncertain if he got the job.
The hospital is still busy verifying his credentials. To verify his records the hospital shared his data to third parties who later use that data for their own benefit. But even if Arjun was aware that his privacy has been invaded, he had to agree on these terms and conditions to proceed. A trail of his data has been spread everywhere to multiple middlemen.
The hospital is also frustrated because they are in dire need for the skills required. They are forced into a verification process that is lengthy and costly. They can’t afford to have a fake doctor stitching up patients or doing surgeries. Their concern is valid because the business of fake and fraudulent documents is a growing economy. And it thrives in India, where offers of forged degrees and certificates are openly advertised and $40 can get you a PhD in minutes.
“Forty thousand legitimate Ph.D.s are awarded annually in the U.S. — while 50,000 spurious Ph.D.s are purchased here” — “Degree Mills” by John Bear (2012)
India’s immigrants are the majority of those holding the temporary worker visa [PDF]. So in the context of Arjun’s scenario, the vulnerability of fraud in academic certificates puts lengthy and costly consequences on all stakeholders involved.
Proposing a Solution
This weekend, Tey and I teamed up with a dynamic group of people at Startup Weekend Utrecht to tackle the issue. During the 3-day intensive hackathon, we managed to develop a working prototype for a tool to help verify and authenticate official documents digitally by utilizing the bitcoin blockchain, a decentralized digital record that permanently exists on the internet.
How does it work?
When the document is first created by a verified issuer, the digital document passes through our tool as a filter. A digital fingerprint of the file is extracted, and embedded in the blockchain. The aim is to have a record of the unique representation of this digital document in a fraud-proof, unchangeable record. Copies of the actual documents are not saved by our tool, our algorithm simply generates and stores only the digital fingerprint consisting of an alphanumeric string of text. The privacy of all parties involved is maintained.
A digital official document that has been processed by our tool can now be instantly proven authentic. Trying to verify a document that has been tampered with, or forged, will generate a different fingerprint that does not exist on the the blockchain, and will return an error. A digital birth certificate that has not been issued officially, or is inauthentic or altered will not pass the check.
Essentially, if the file has never been tampered with, the fingerprint derived will always match the original one embedded in the Blockchain. Proving both its existence and authenticity.
The problems mentioned exist across many industries. Not only academic or birth certificates, consider marriage , divorce, wills, and contracts. The pains are felt by insurance companies, financial institutions, and even governments. Only now, disruptive technologies are creating new paradigms through new ideas that make new solutions possible.
We believe the concept behind Bitcoin and Blockchain technology can be a valuable tool in a wide array of social and business applications. It can be used in helping fight poverty, tracking corruption, and build strong institutions.
These goals happen to match goal #1 and#16 of the United Nations’ Sustainability and Development Goals. But although the Bitcoin blockchain is certainly promising to use as a tool, it is still a developing technology. Scalability issues still need to be sorted, and alternative digital currencies and blockchains are rapidly developing. Having said that technology alone cannot create prosperity, people do.
Cover photo by Yannis Behrakis (Reuters)