For the past few months, we’ve been engaging in discussions about the potential of blockchain to provide digital identities to over 1 billion people who currently lack the ability to prove that they are who they say they are. These conversations are extremely important because verifiable proof of identity is the starting point for socio-economic inclusion. Unfortunately, we often find ourselves challenging the widespread assumption that if the “right” solution is built, adoption and access to x,y,z benefits will inevitably follow. This very same assumption has led to a rise in blockchain-based projects promising to deliver the world’s next global identity system and will likely to lead us down a very familiar path — one where the systems that we have built to run the world are by their very nature exclusionary.
In 1539, using data from the Catholic Church, France established the world’s first nationwide population repository. Over time, civil registration has come to include continuous and universal occurrences of vital events, such as birth, death, name, marriage, divorce, ownership of assets, and more. The term “identity” was a word used to track something that remained unchanged over time. Going through mainstream research, you’ll find studies on how the Second World War changed the conventionally accepted definition to the modern concept of identity that attempts to encapsulate who one “is”. Today, in both academic discourse and public debate, we are absolutely and inexhaustibly obsessed with defining our own and each other’s identity.
More importantly, in trying to understand the predominantly white-washed historical evolution of the term “identity”, we are reminded of just how dangerous the assumption that “if we build it, they will come” is to the future success of global digital identity systems. The reality is that they will not come, because just as often as identity has afforded you or he or she access to formalized finance services or civic rights and protections, it has also stripped billions of people of theirs.
Ledgers of sale tracking international slave trade exchanges have gone from stone tablets to paper to computers. Holocaust survivors all over the world still bear the tattooed alpha-numeric codes that were used to catalog, sort and classify them at concentration camps, a reference ID system enabled by technology. In January of 1994, General Roméo Dallaire spoke of a Rwandan politician ordered to register all of the Tutsis in Kigali, where the Presidential Guard set up road blocks and required every passing person to show their national identity card, which included ethnicity. Anyone carrying a Tutsi card was immediately slaughtered. Religious minorities, people of colour, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ community members, Palestinians, and so many others have been, time after time, persecuted due to some component of their “identity”. Repositories for identifiable traits have made this all possible.
In 1876, the Government of Canada passed the Indian Act. The original legislation defined who is and who is not recognized as “Indian” and for many decades, being identified as Indian led to children being separated from their families and cultures in order to influence their assimilation into the dominant Canadian culture. Over the course of a hundred years, 30 per cent of Indigenous children were sent to residential schools, disconnected and exposed to physical and sexual abuse. One thing that wasn’t tracked well? Their deaths. To this day, the exact number of residential school deaths is unknown and indigenous communities have struggled with lasting trauma passed on inter-generationally.
Today, undocumented persons in the United States are being relentlessly targeted, the global resettlement of millions of Arabic refugees is being stalled due to terrorist narratives, Myanmar’s Rohingya minority is being viciously persecuted, women and children and young men are still being sold across the globe — all because they have been identified as “other”. A bad actor, most often with access and/or control of data repositories, has leveraged them to deny, expel, oppress, exclude, harass, persecute and slaughter.
We must not assume causation between identity and access. And we must not reduce the complexities of access to social and financial services to something that can be solved entirely or exclusively by technology — even through self-sovereign identity systems.
Self-Sovereign identity systems are not a new concept. In 2016, Christopher Allen published a comprehensive definition of the term and its role within the evolution of digital identity. He defined the term as a system in which the user is central to the administration of their portable identity, across multiple locations and with their autonomy and consent. Allen went on to propose ten guiding principles to develop truly self-sovereign identity: independent existence, user control, user access to data, transparency, persistence, portability, interoperability, consent, minimalization of disclosure, and protection.
A system built upholding Allen’s guiding principles would be an incredible step forward in creating better identity technology, while potentially preventing or limiting the misuse of identity data. Giving users more control over their data, the power of consent, more information on who is accessing their data, portability, and other features, will protect individuals much more. However, there will always be information that must supersede personal consent, such as criminal and security data, or demographic data that allows for allocation of benefits and services. This is the same data that has been and is continued to be used against people. This is the same data that leads to mistrust, unwillingness, and/or fear to adopt, especially when people think their data will live within an immutable, distributed, public ledger.
To be truly transformative, we must understand the nuances of how the historical evolution of political identity, particularly for excluded populations, affects the successful deployment and adoption of said solutions.
Throughout the course of history, being identifiable and being identified has led to exclusion as often as it has led to inclusion. As we build systems that collect more and more personal data on people or those that create more portable, ubiquitous records of identity, we must be particularly intentional in building unprecedented on- and off- chain levels of trust, protections, and special considerations for those who have rarely, if ever, benefited from documented participation in our society.
Thoughts? Leave them below! More on the subject matter to come.
Emerge uses emerging technologies to address pressing humanitarian issues. We’ve designed and are developing Homeward, an identity management and intelligent resettlement platform for displaced persons. Learn more about our work at www.emergedev.co.
This article was authored by Emerge Founder Lucia Gallardo. Lucia is a serial social entrepreneur focused on socially impactful technological innovation. She started her career in the public sector, working with undocumented immigrants before moving through the emerging tech and early-stage investment spaces.
Sources: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, History & Identity (Uppsala University), Identifying Identity: A Semantic History (Philip Gleason), Sectarian Violence Against Sunni Mislims (UNHCR), Encyclopedia of Human Rights, Volume 1, Elimination of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping, Identification of Groups (Public Works and Government Services Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: A Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, The Path to Self-Sovereign Identity (Christopher Allen)