Blockchained Society — Part 4: The Future of Privacy

Blockchained Society is a series of articles about some practical use-cases of blockchain technology (and others). For every article, we zoom in on ONE possible application of the technology and try to envision how it would change society as we know it, through storytelling and hand-drawn illustrations. We publish a new one every week, so stay tuned by following me on Medium! Text by Deniz Yilmaz, illustrations by Niels Sinke.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6

illustrations by Niels Sinke

Meet Will; a 24-year old woman from Haarlem, The Netherlands. She’s on her way to the airport — with a friend — to embark on a week-long city trip to Berlin. It’s been a busy month and they could both use an escape from their day-to-day life. After scouting for good deals, they came across some cheap flight tickets and a nice little hostel. They are extra excited for the trip since they’re departing from a recently-built airport near Amsterdam, which is supposed to be the most high-tech and time-efficient airport in the world. The airport is also the first one to fully leverage the new digital identity system that was introduced by the European Union last year, so Will and her friend didn’t need to bring their passports or ID cards.

They were talking to the taxi driver about their trip but the topic changed to the new identity system the airport was using. Will, which happens to be a privacy law student — started explaining how it works and why it mattered to her. “Everyone has a unique identity; it’s an inherent part of being human”, she claims. “But when you are traveling or shopping online, just having an identity is not enough; you need to somehow prove that a certain identity belongs to you. Right now we use government-issued documents like passports and ID cards. Online we use email addresses combined with passwords.” “The problem with the current system…” she states, “… is that these documents are easy to replicate and hard to store and transport safely because of their physical nature. It would be more safe and efficient to use a digital system instead of these documents, which is now possible.

After years of research and development, the European Union finally launched eID; a blockchain-based identity system that would eventually fully replace physical passports, ID cards and even online accounts. All citizens of the EU were allocated a unique entry on a blockchain-based system and their government would store identity-related data on that entry. The people could then use the eID app to manage their own data and privacy; they would use the app whenever they needed to identify themselves. Besides the user-friendly interface, the eID app also added biometrics technology (fingerprint and face scans) to the mix to further increase usability and safety of the system. Airports were particularly happy with this new system, since it would enable them to increase efficiency and improve the traveling experience by creating a seamless passenger flow.

Back to Will and her friend, who finally arrived at the airport. They have just half an hour for the usual procedures before their flight departs, so they immediately proceed to the luggage check-in. They drop their suitcases at one of the counters, where they get tagged with a special kind of RFID chip that can’t be removed without breaking it. At the counter, they use their eID app to allow the luggage system access to their identity data.

illustrations by Niels Sinke

Will noticed that — after matching her luggage with her identity — a new “airport” section was unlocked in her eID app. In here, she could access all the information and identity proofs that she would need in order to travel cross-country. It also shows her which luggage items she checked in, where they are located and who handled them. It even shows her travel insurance; a claim is automatically filed and processed when the airport loses her luggage.

Will and her friend continued to the customs office, only to find out that the booths — usually occupied by an angry-looking customs officer — were fully replaced by small gates, similar to those you’d find at a train station. To pass the gate, Will and her friend had to (once again) use the eID app to identify themselves. After the system determined that the persons trying to enter the airport do indeed have a flight ticket and aren’t some kind of criminals, the gate opens and a display shows some relevant info regarding their flight. Will and her friend are amazed; they’ve been inside for five minutes and they already passed customs!

The eID app is the front-end of the new identity system and serves as the only way to identify yourself, thus replacing passports, ID cards and driver’s licenses. The eID app is used to access the unique blockchain entry that contains all identity data of Will. Whenever she needs to identify herself, she uses the app to allow access to her identity data. This is fundamentally different from the past; companies and other third-parties are no longer allowed to generate and store their own identity data. In the past, there have been countless hacks of databases that leaked tons of privacy-sensitive data; these databases were considered true “data honeypots” for hackers. There is only one source of identity data, which is fully managed by the user itself. Every time someone requests access, the user can specify what information can be accesses. For example: Only allow access to email address and date of birth for an online account but full access to passport data for the customs department at the airport.
illustrations by Niels Sinke

Upon entering the airport area, Will and her friend have about 15 minutes left before they need to board the airplane. Will is determined to buy some wine before they leave to Berlin, since she wants to start celebrating as soon as they arrive. In the airport shop, she has to prove that she is at least 18 years old. Once again, she whips out her phone and opens the eID app to identify herself. This time the app creates a “range proof” of her age, which proves that Will’s age is in a certain range above 18 without revealing her actual age. The eID app also asks her if she wants to share her email address in return for a discount coupon but she kindly declines; she cares more about her privacy than she cares about a lousy coupon. She pays for the wine using her cryptocurrency wallet and they both proceed to the gate for boarding.

The boarding process is also fully streamlined; the eID app prompts travelers individually whenever they are expected to board. Will and her friend are absolutely amazed by the seamless experience they just had at the new airport; no more hours of waiting, no more awkward interrogations at the customs and no more useless queues at the gate during boarding! Maybe even more important: They were completely in control of their privacy-sensitive data. They board the plane and start their week-long adventure in Berlin!

Blockchain technology will fundamentally change the way companies and governments handle privacy-sensitive data. The current system is hard to process, hard to update and easy to duplicate. By leveraging blockchain technology, governments can create one single source of truth for identity data and put access control in the hands of the user. The data is machine-readable, which enables lots of costly and inefficient processes to be fully automated. More importantly; citizens get full ownership of their privacy-sensitive data through the concept of self-sovereign identity. No more privacy infringement and identity theft, both online and offline!

Thanks for reading! Liked it? Then please don’t forget to CLAP and follow me on Medium or LinkedIn, since we’ll publish a new article every week!

All illustrations hand-drawn by the amazing Niels Sinke! Check out his work on his website and Instagram.

Some interesting reads regarding this subject: Self-sovereign identity explained | How blockchain could enable self-sovereign identity | Tess Poot about the Seamless Flow experiment of Schiphol airport

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6