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Over one billion people worldwide have no identification – blockchain as proof of identity?

Migrations are ever more frequent, but guaranteeing identity when moving to a new country is not easy. Blockchain can help, according to Monique Morrow

Monique Morrow – The Humanized Internet

Technology is an integral part of human evolution. It is also increasingly present as a shaping force in the way we inhabit the planet. This is true also for how we structure both same-species and inter-species relationships. We spoke to Monique Morrow, co-founder of a swiss-based nonprofit called The Humanized Internet, about the role of digital infrastructure in Identity representation with a particular focus on migration flows. 

The issue of identity for refugees

Today, the World Bank estimates that over one billion people worldwide have no identification. Most of them are migrants or internally displaced people. Some of them come from war zones or climatic disasters. Being unable to prove their identities means they cannot get an education, demonstrate their work experience and get a job. They can’t have access online banking, but also cannot defend their human rights. No identity means no freedom. Co-founder of The Humanized Internet Akram Alfawakheeri experienced this first-hand. Being a refugee from Damascus, he found himself studying in Greece, holding no documents and unable to prove his identity. Morrow became interested in the topic and started actively considering blockchain as a potential solution: «I had the chance to visit the refugee camp in Syria through a UNHCR-sponsored visit. To meet people who were displaced and understand what their challenges are. Also, how these technologies are enabling the issue of identity». Paper documents might become untimely, when we have better solutions. In cases of emergency, certificates and documents are not always readily available, especially in cases like wars or – inresigly common – natural disasters. «If you had to leave your home in a few minutes», Monique Morrow asks, «what would you take with you?». Your passport possibly, but would you necessarily think about your Degree certificate or proof of work? And yet, these are precisely the kinds of documentation that is likely to make a difference when starting your life from scratch in a new country. 

Blockchain as a possible solution 

«The way it might work in the future» envisions Monique Morrow, «is you might have something digital that is about you, and you only, that you can carry like a digital lockbox». It would be holding all of your information. You would also be in control of who can access them. Although most institutions are barely doing anything to keep up, some are changing their framework when it comes to credentialing. Morrow got a Master’s Degree in Blockchain and Cryptocurrency at Nicosia University in 2019. Her certificate is both on paper and blockchain. «If they would ever go out of business, it would not be a problem for my credentials». The same might happen with IDs. Potentially, you could put anything you want – provided it is officially credentialed – on blockchain. However, this does not mean that you should. «Blockchain is a technology, an enable. We cannot and should not put just anything on the blockchain because it is forever there. It is important that whatever is there is certified»

The role of A.I. 

When it comes to migration, receiving institutions might also use A.I. to improve identification processes. For instance to «establish where you are likely to come from based on the way you speak». After careful observation, they could store all the learned information on blockchain. As such, refugees can have a lockbox  at their disposal as proof of their identity and defining information. 

Honoring the documents

In its nature, blockchain has the ability to relocate the issue of trust, if not remove it completely. It is designed to be trustworthy. Yet, this does not mean that receiving nations will accept proofs of identity on blockchain. Even if the perfect blockchain credentialing system was created, it would not necessarily be adopted by all nations. There are issues still to be solved. Including the possibility of a system or structure that acts on another level, besides the nation-states model. Either way, through her work, Morrow illustrates the possibilities of using the internet for good. In a way to guarantee that the privacy of individuals and their human rights are respected.

Tech for good: humans at the center 

In the view of The Humanized Internet, says Morrow, «technology should be enabling for the biggest problems we have to solve». The kind of internet we have now, «is somewhat decentralized» but also «somewhat controlled by a small group of companies». This structure is traced back to the origins of the world wide web itself, as a United States Defense initiative. Control remains, to date, an essential characteristic of the internet. Thus, it can be problematic to affirm individual rights online. «With all these technologies» Monique Morrow explains, «sometimes we lose the sense of the individual as the focus». This is the point behind the Humanized Internet: if the seemingly unavoidable integration between men and machines, between physical and digital is to be fruitful and fair, «we must maintain humanity at the center of the discussion». To start with, this means that «you and I should be able to disclose what it is that we want to disclose about ourselves», and nothing more than that.

Self-Sovereign Identity 

Self Sovereign Identity (SSI) is a notion that has been growing over the past five or six years. In a nutshell, it means «that I control myself». SSI is about the right of every person/user to be aware of what they are sharing and choose what information they are putting out there. «Whatever you are putting out there, either on Instagram, from your phone or any account, you are giving yourself away» explains Morrow. Every piece of information is a part of you. Further developing the awareness that our digital persona is an integrating part of our identity is a first step. People must then be allowed and enabled to take control.

Selective disclosure: taking action

«Is the alternative that you shut yourself off from the internet? » Morrow asks. Clearly, the answer is no. Yet, the issue of information and control remains: «There are organizations that are constantly looking at your data». The notion of Selective Disclosure, pairing with SSI, can help. Starting from the assumption that, in most cases, «you don’t need to disclose everything». This can range from the medical to the educational field, to work experience. «There is technology that can disclose just part of the information and only share updates of what is relevant.» To the position you are applying to, or for the needed purposes. «You, as a human, become the center of the [digital] universe»

Blockchain technology:  a potential solution

Blockchain as a technology, according to Monique Morrow, can help with this. The idea is to create a «secure decentralized database that each person can access with a private key». A form of digital wallet that contains all of your information. Every time you need to share some of it, you could control what you put out there and who has access. This might also be helpful in case an institution, a company or even a state ceases to exist. Imagine for instance that you graduated from a University that doesn’t exist anymore, says Morrow. «If they used blockchain as credentials for you, your certificate would still be there». It is ready to be accessed by whom you decide to share it with. Information on blockchain is difficult to hack or forge, so «it might even be more secure than paper»

The issue of credentialing and geopolitical blocks 

Today we are experiencing a trust deficit. «Blockchain is not necessarily going to solve that, but it may be an enabler to create a trusted internet». According to Morrow, one of the advantages is it could constitute «a single source of truth», given its hardly hackable nature. There is however a twofold issue. On the one hand, there needs to be a provider or certifier that can officially give credentials. Maybe, different organizations should be registered as official providers. On the other hand, you would need to make sure that receiving institutions – or nations in case of passports – will accept that kind of proof, certificate or document. The whole world would need to be on the same page. As we know, it isn’t easy. Different geopolitical blocks have different views and policies regarding blockchain. Morrow is skeptical that a single model can exist: «I do not see a United Nations of digital identity happening». The chances for different blocks – «either east-west or north-south» – are higher. China, for instance, represents «a big extreme». However, in Morrow’s opinion, «that is the cost of membership living in a country of that nature». The example of China and authoritarianism in general clearly shows that there is a «fine line between the use of technology to solve problems and abuse of that technology». To date, this probably remains the main issue to be tackled. Morrow imagines that this type of transformation «won’t happen inside, but around the world we live in today».

Monique Morrow

Senior Distinguished Architect Emerging Technologies at Syniverse, Monique Morrow is providing thought leadership and strategic direction and vision for the company’s identified emerging technologies, including DLT interoperability; Zero Knowledge Proofs/Data Anonymization, Trust and Identity and Mobile Payments. She is President and Co-Founder of the Humanized Internet, a non-profit organization focused on providing digital identity for those individuals most underserved, and most importantly the need to control our identities.

Matilde Moro

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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