Margie is a DPhil student at the OII.
The rise of big data and big tech platforms has heightened concerns about how ‘identification practices’—the ways in which people are made recognisable to institutions—enable invasions of privacy, state surveillance, and the extraction and exploitation of personal data by businesses for profit. Recent debates focus on the handling of health information and vaccine passports by governments and their corporate partners, but the examples are legion.
To address the threats posed by computational capitalism, some propose to decentralise digital identity through ‘self-sovereign identity’ (SSI) schemes which will supposedly revolutionise data governance. SSI will allegedly give individuals more privacy, control and ownership with regard to personal identity data, reducing reliance on—or even cutting out—commercial and state gatekeepers. Most decentralised identity projects deploy blockchain, a.k.a. distributed ledger technology, which is claimed to have a high security profile and to enable transactions that rely on algorithms instead of institutions.
Decentralised digital ID is going mainstream. Microsoft’s blockchain-based identity platform is now being trialled with the UK’s NHS, a university in Tokyo, and a Belgian government authority.
“The goal is to build a platform that could store information about official data without holding the actual documents or details themselves. Instead of just storing a scan of your birth certificate, for example, a decentralised ID platform might store a validated token that confirms the information in it. Then when you get carded at a bar or need proof of citizenship, you could share those pre-verified credentials instead of the actual document or data”.
The implications are promising. Beyond getting drinks at a bar, this would encompass all kinds of public, financial and health services. The European Commission is developing its own decentralised approach to e-identity for citizens. Public-private initiatives are building blockchain-based ‘immunity passports’. Decentralised identity systems are being trialled by public authorities and NGOs in British Columbia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, Thailand and Indonesia, Turkey and Ethiopia, Lebanon and Tanzania. Unsurprisingly, many of these experiments happen to enrol refugees as end-users.
Decentralised identity at global margins
When people are forcibly displaced from a country, it’s often on the basis of identity: e.g., a persecuted ethnic, political or religious affiliation, or LGBT identity. And refugees often lack a secure, persistent from of ID. When humanitarian and government agencies formally recognise people as refugees and provide them with welfare, social and financial services, and political protection, they deploy identification systems. Many experiments are running to develop decentralised, digital, self-sovereign identity systems, and grand claims are regularly made about them.
Taqanu and the Rohingya Project are two such projects. Taqanu (strapline: ‘A Catalyst for Global Inclusion’) aims to set up an alternative financial infrastructure for refugee populations, who are often not ‘bankable’ because they do not fulfil the necessary ID checks and credit scores. The Rohingya Project aims to mitigate the systematic denial of political recognition to stateless Rohingyans, who are persecuted on the basis of ethnic identity in Myanmar, and ‘other stateless people worldwide’.
It is well known that data-based identification systems are riddled with the profiteering, exploitation and surveillance strategies of state and corporate actors. The claims made by proponents of decentralised ID can’t be taken at face value. Will SSI projects like Taqanu and The Rohingya Project really reform the international order and empower some of the world’s most marginalised groups? Recent research suggests this is unlikely.
Research findings from the aid industry
My book chapter with Aiden Slavin on decentralised identity in aid is published this week. Our research zooms in on the two aforementioned case studies to examine how SSI initiatives interface with the established data practices and institutions of refugee governance. We advocate for caution regarding the slippery terms and techno-utopian associations of self-sovereignty, decentralisation and blockchain. This work ties in with my recent research paper in Geopolitics, where I draw on ethnographic research with an international aid organisation to examine the key debates surrounding SSI.
In the rest of this blog, I draw together the main findings from both pieces of research. In summary, there are 4 main competing logics that characterise debates about decentralised identity:
Overall, the research shows that the properties of SSI are indeterminate, as are its benefits. Slippery terms and competing logics are not just at play in debates about decentralised identity at global margins, but also much more broadly. Decentralised ID is being proposed in ever more domains. This presents pressing issues, not just of legality or technical standards. SSI schemes embed classification systems with potentially discriminatory outcomes. They embed models of end-users and their capacities to act. They instantiate political, institutional arrangements. They offer new forms of value: but for whom?
This blog was originally published by the The Digital Inequality Group, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford in May 2021.