Blockchain for Social Good
Digital Civil Society Lab Workshop, October 16
For those who have encountered the term ‘blockchain’, most will instantly think of bitcoin, the decentralized, anarchic, digital crypto-currency that transmits and records payment from outside the traditional banking system. Bitcoin’s underlying technology, however, isn’t limited to transacting digital cash, since it can capture any piece of information and transmit it to someone else. Blockchains offer a way, for instance, to establish identity or to trace a physical good.
Blockchains are in essence a distributed digital ledger; they create an immutable chain of custody for a record created and controlled by a community. Private key cryptography answers the need for mutual trust on such a system by authenticating users and marking every contribution on the chain as a unique transaction. As a technological form of verification, blockchains suggest a way to short-circuit around our most powerful institutions, whether financial or state-run. The radical possibilities of the technology appear, on the face of it, thrilling.
For this reason, blockchain has captured the imagination of the non-profit community. At a recent lunchtime chat hosted by the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University and the Digital Civil Society Lab, we discussed several scenarios in which blockchain can be purposed for the collective good. The technology could be applied to disaster assistance, for instance, in settings where there’s an urgent need to track services. Given the common problem of aid leakage — when a vast number of subsidies to a population are lost along the way to being delivered — an agency could use a blockchain to record what item is distributed where. Block chains could also provide proof of provenance for material goods — a ledger, for instance, of the travels of diamonds from mining site to point of sale. In another case, blockchains could record vaccine delivery in areas where health records are scarce.
Blockchain can also allow a person to create and control her own identifying traces. This infrastructure, if done right, could act as a new source of authority for determining how a person’s existence is authenticated, with implications ranging from education records to voting. Blockchains could create another form of acceptable ID, offering an alternative to state-issued social security numbers that are often required for many financial and record-related transactions.
Finally, Blockchain is promising for financial inclusion. The blockchain ledger can give someone long-term access to a record of established credit worthiness. For a person who lives in a place with poor access to banks, a blockchain could document her informal bartering transactions or micropayments. The technology would then establish alternate accreditation in parts of the world that don’t have access to formal financial institutions.
At the same time, the heady promises of blockchain can obscure several potential limitations and ethical pitfalls. There could be adoption barriers to a technology that is a technical black box to all but a few. Also, using blockchains to record information, rather than money, poses a problem of validation: cryptographic technology can easily verify if a person has enough currency to make a payment in the system, but the technology will be much less capable of making the same judgement about the validity of other types of informational claims put into the ledger.
Another problem is with the characteristic of immutability. What if information was recorded in the blockchain incorrectly — how would that information be amended? Or what if sensitive information goes onto the blockchain and needs expunging? And what happens to a person’s data if she decides to opt out of the blockchain? The supposed immutability of the technology is potentially misaligned with privacy and surveillance concerns, as well as issues of governance and control. To the latter concern, how can a blockchain design democratic systems of due process into the system so that a user can request changes to the record and take ownership of her data?
These are not trivial questions, and they should come to bear on any blockchain project taken up by civil society groups. Such concerns are especially worth addressing now while the technology is still in a very nascent state. Our discussion at the Lab pitched a few ideas for best practices around blockchain in the non-profit or social-good sector:
· First, create a policy around identifiable information. Should identifying content go into the chain’s ledger? Or, instead, consider if the information in a block could provide a one-way link to an outside source that maintains the identifying details instead (though the web’s mutability still remains a problem here).
· Second, determine if the blockchain should operate through public versus a private ledger. When blockchains are permissionless, every user has a copy of the entire ledger of transactions, a situation that could also pose privacy problems. Consider instead a blockchain permission system that gives users their own private key to control who can access their data.
· Relatedly, will the system require a central trusted authority to determine levels of access? The blockchain’s decentralized form can seem liberating in some cases, but in many contexts users will be wary of a completely decentralized system without any clear authority to turn to with questions about membership, content removal, or opting-out.
· One more precaution to consider. How could the civic sector make the technology user-friendly and comprehensible so that users feel comfortable relying on it and understand their rights when they do? What software interfaces should help with this? Even if the technology has revolutionary ambitions for the social good, and even if it takes privacy and user control into account — if it’s not easy to use and understand, then its wider adoption will be moot.