It’s time activists began to develop a working knowledge of Blockchain and self-sovereign digital identity, because these are the mechanisms that will drive the transition to IoT monitoring for the purposes of Pay for Success deal evaluation. I created a slide share about Blockchain as part of a “Smart Cities” post I wrote last year, which can be accessed here if it helps to have visuals.
The technology became public in 2008 when Santoshi Nakamoto published the whitepaper “Bitcoin: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System.” No one knows who Nakamoto actually is. Over the past decade Bitcoin digital currency has generated significant buzz, yet many believe Blockchain will be even more transformative, as big as or bigger than the rise of the Internet.
MIT is heavily involved in Blockchain research and development through its Digital Currency Initiative, housed within the MIT Media Lab. The program is led by Neha Nerula, formerly of Google who holds a PhD from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Nerula served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Blockchain from 2016-2017. Its faculty advisor, Simon Johnson, co-founded the Sloan School’s Global Entrepreneurship Lab and worked as chief economist for the International Monetary fund.
In an April 2018 article, “In Blockchain We Trust,” Michael Casey, global economics professor, goes into detail regarding the use of Blockchain to create “value” in virtual worlds by securing ownership of digital assets. As we kill off the planet and begin spending more and more time in online environments, there’s cold comfort knowing the forces of global monopoly capital are rapidly colonizing digital worlds, too.
Blockchain is the structure that underpins crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, but it’s much more than that. In its simplest terms, it’s a ledger that keeps track of transactions, all kinds of transactions that may or may not have a financial component. Unlike a dusty accounting ledger or its modern equivalent, something like Quick Books, data stored on Blockchain is distributed. This means multiple exact copies of the same encrypted data live on peer-to-peer networked computers, which supposedly makes it more secure. If one node goes down the information is not lost. It is portrayed as the ultimate “permanent record.”
Data stored on Blockchain is “verified” by computers that use a consensus process, competing to solve cryptographic puzzles in exchange for Bitcoin payments. This cryptographic authentication injects “trust” into transactions, enabling security without the need of a third party to ensure everyone is on the up and up. Once data is locked into Blockchain, promoters of the technology say it is immutable, unchangeable. Although, as with everything coded, there are still vulnerabilities and hacks as discussed in this MIT Technology Review article “How secure is blockchain really?”
It may be some indication of the level of actual “trust” developers have in blockchain that the Chamber of Digital Commerce and Coin Center created the Blockchain Alliance in the fall of 2015 to “pro-actively engage” with regulatory and law enforcement agencies. In the United States, government partners include: DEA, DHS, DOJ, FBI, US Marshal Service, US Secret Service, ICE/HSI, CBP, IRS-Criminal Investigation, FDA, US Postal Inspection, Commidity and Futures Trading Commission, SEC, FTC, FDIC, as well Attorney General’s Offices in California, Texas, New York, and Ulster County. Seems they have some rather powerful partners.
Some Blockchains are public, others are private. Data stored on private chains can be made accessible using a combination of matched public and private “keys.” A public key is used to verify and encrypt data. It is public and can be known by anyone. A private key decrypts data that has been encrypted with its paired public key. These keys consist of extremely long sets of characters, which can be shortened to a public key fingerprint or associated with biometric information via a biocryptic process.
Digital currency payments validated with biometric information like iris scans have been prototyped using refugee populations over the past few years (see the featured image). While the technology that undergirds it is complex, programmers are developing accessible interfaces that make using digital currency as easy as opening an app and verifying a transaction, financial or otherwise, with a thumbprint or facial-recognition scan.
Beyond their capacity to hold tokenized digital currencies, e-wallets are being used to hold all sorts of other information. They are touted as an effective means to manage the continuous flows of activity, money, and data that surround us. In the fall of 2016, the state of Illinois; home to many Pay for Success players including: James Heckman, JB Pritzker, Rahm Emmanuel, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (trading financial and commodity derivatives), charged a Blockchain Taskforce with examining ways to use the technology to promote economic development in the state and “improve record keeping.” Their final report, issued in January, is available here. Below is a map of the players involved. Click here for the interactive version.
Included in the report is an info-graphic I have shared repeatedly. It depicts public welfare food benefits being put on Blockchain with “healthy” eating nudges built into the mechanics. Memorize this. Internalize it. This how they will deploy computer code to control the growing masses of the poor. See Carolyn Leith’s great post “Do you believe Universal Basic Income will save society? Think again.” Putting “friction” in the system is not limited to SNAP benefits. Similarly coded nudges could just as easily be inserted into “choice” options around education savings accounts, healthcare access, and housing vouchers. How about Sesame Credit? It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine citizen scoring being embedded into these systems as well.
In the fall of 2017, Illinois announced a partnership with Evernym, a Utah-based company that develops digital identity solutions. They plan to put birth certificates on Blockchain. Increasing attention is being paid to the field of self-sovereign identity. The premise, if you go along with it, is that you no longer need a centralized authority to recognize your identity. A person can simply build up a digital identity through recorded transactions stored on Blockchain. Un-housed people in major cities are being scooped up as test subjects.
Austin has undertaken such a program with financial support from Bloomberg “What Works Cities” Philanthropies. This population is also one that requires significant support, making them prime candidates for Pay for Success interventions. Of course the impact of the interventions must be able to be tracked and measured, because this is an investment market after all. Self-sovereign identity makes to possible to aggregate all of that data, streamlining deal assessment. Fummi is one app in development to support such programs.
Many “smart” cities are establishing municipal ID programs, touted as a “solution” for people unable to obtain state-issued identification. It sounds good, but I can’t help but wonder if the plan is to convert these programs to self-sovereign identity apps on Blockchain in the not too distant future. Oakland’s program links to a debit card, so there is precedent for tying these IDs into digital payment systems.
Last fall the city of Philadelphia issued a Request for Proposals for the development of a municipal ID program, though it appears to have since been cancelled. The RFP expressed a desire to incorporate tracking other public services, including library access and health records, onto the card. They also wanted to build in the ability to share data with private and non-profit partner organizations via magnetized strips. See screenshot below or read the full RFP here.
This link from the Worldwide Web Consortium discusses use of DIDs or Decentralized Identifiers as key element of this new form of identity management. Of course there are downsides to efficient identity systems. During a panel at the Advanced Digital Identity Summit last fall around timestamp 26:00, Bitcoin entrepreneur Andreas Atonopolous, cautioned the audience that digital identity systems could pose risks, especially for populations living under authoritarian regimes where governments may use digital methods to control how people interact with society.
Antonopolous described conversations he’d had in places like Argentina where people expressed serious reservations about these systems, because their government had a history of throwing dissidents out of aircraft. If private keys are tied to biometric markers, it should be expected that people will at some point be compelled by authorities to open access to their data-using force to attain a face or fingerprint scan against someone’s will. Or even if brute force were not used, to withhold access to needed services, until the person has no other choice but to submit.
Other pilot programs underway in Illinois include land titling in Cook County, academic credentialing at the University of Illinois, logging green energy task credits, and state licensing for healthcare providers. That last one is interesting; a toe in the water, perhaps, to begin shifting Medicaid onto Blockchain?
The day after I wrote “Minding our Health: Digital Nudge Part Two,” I discovered a 2016 whitepaper by Institute for the Future (creator of “Learning is Earning” and edu-blocks) “A Blockchain Profile for Medicaid Applicants and Recipients.” The paper pitches the idea of creating Blockchain smart contracts to devise “smart” health profiles that would allow AI-mediated sale of healthcare insurance and IoT monitoring of prescriptions and patient compliance. Pretty overwhelming if you consider that IFTF also imagines a future where AI assistants are going to help people navigate their lifelong-learning/human capital management plans.
I have a nagging fear we’re looking at a future where Universal Basic Income stipends proffer subsistence, just enough to keep the masses alive and compel them to sell their data for the most modest luxuries, maybe a chocolate bar. Platforms are being developed right now that encourage the widespread sale of personal data for the purposes of AI development. Access to data is granted using pseudonymous protocols that permit it to be queried without the initiator of the query knowing the actual identity of the person whose data is involved. Proponents of big-data government really want us to believe it’s ok to allow our personal data to be poured into massive data lakes as long as it remains anonymized. Check out Ocean Protocol, Enigma, and datum. I’d love to hear what you think.
Personally, I think they’re aiming to use our digital exhaust to build HAL.