Blockchain and student loans: a solution to an urgent problem?

by Davide Cantelli via StockSnap
by Davide Cantelli via StockSnap

The New York Times reported this morning that tens of thousands of people who took out private loans to pay for college may be about to see their debts wiped away.

Why? Because critical paperwork has gone missing.

Judges are throwing out recovery suits brought by loan issuers because they cannot produce the relevant paperwork to prove ownership of the debts. The New York Times did some digging and found that many other collection cases also had incomplete documentation.

This could turn out to be a very big deal. The paper draws parallels between the student loan overhang and the subprime mortgage crisis a decade ago, when billions of dollars in loans were swept away by the courts because of missing or fake records.

Given that student loans have ballooned to account for approximately 7% of GDP, with more than 44 million borrowers owing $1.3tn, the hit to the economy would be sizeable if a chunk of that debt were to “disappear”. Over 10% of these loans are in default.

The default percentage could suddenly rise when word gets out that the debt cancellation only benefits those that don’t meet their obligations, ie. those against whom the lending companies bring suit. Don’t pay your student loan, get sued by the issuer and have your debt cancelled. What could go wrong? (Note: this is so definitely NOT advice, nor is it a good idea.)

That such an important sector of the economy – student lending is the second highest consumer debt category, behind mortgages and ahead of credit card and auto loans – is still dependent on paper documentation is staggering. These “lost” cases at least are shining a spotlight on the urgent need for reform.

The UK government is investigating the potential use of blockchain technology to manage student loans. The advantages include more secure documentation, less administrative overhead, greater oversight and more transparent data.

It sounds like the US could use similar help. True, the cases mentioned by the New York Times are from private lenders, which account for approximately 10% of the overall market. The troubled loans in question total about $5bn. That is still a sizeable hit, though, and the ripple effects could cause other debts to be questioned, future loans to be denied and uncertainty to deepen in a sector already trembling from the default overhang.

That the problem is due to missing documentation highlights the importance of trustworthy records. That a sector struggling to increase the repayment rate has yet to modernize, especially after seeing what faulty records did to the sub-prime mortgage sector ten years ago, is puzzling.

Hopefully the exposure of this vulnerability will trigger a re-design of the loan process. The benefits of using blockchain for the modernization are apparent, and it would provide the most future-proof solution, but other technologies could also help. The important thing is that the shift happens, because for both students and lenders, a lot is at stake.

A small nation steeped in history helps blockchain move forward

san marino

The elusive myth of 5G is getting closer to becoming a reality, and the impact this could have on blockchain development is significant.

According to a report in the FT this morning, the microstate of San Marino will become the first country in the world to test the new broadband service.

Tucked away in the northern part of Italy, San Marino has the smallest population of the Council of Europe and claims to be the oldest still-existing sovereign state in the world, as well as the oldest constitutional republic.

Telecom Italia Mobile has signed an agreement with the government of San Marino to upgrade the 4G system in preparation for state-wide 5G trials starting in 2018. 5G testing is ongoing in other regions such as South Korea, China and the US. However, they tend to be small trials lacking the pressure of real-world use cases. San Marino’s small size makes it the ideal site for first nation-wide test case (although it should be noted that AT&T plans to roll out 5G in test cities such as Austin and Indianapolis, each with approximately 30x the population of San Merino).

As its name implies, 5G is a step above 4G, which is what most developed countries have installed in the cities (with 3G still the main carrier technology in the countryside), with speeds up to 10x faster. 5G promises broader coverage, faster downloads and lower latency.

While the first two characteristics sound great from a user perspective, the latter is essential for effective deployment of the Internet of Things (IoT). Latency refers to the time elapsed between one node sending a signal and another receiving it. If we are going to have a myriad of gadgets exchanging data, we need to know that the transfer is fast, especially if payments are made or if decisions are based on the information.

Driverless cars, for example. Sensor-based shopping. Smart gadgets reacting quickly (lights turning on, doors opening, alarms alerting).

With sensors in close proximity to the central server, latency is not usually a problem. But with sensors distributed in a wide area, it would be, especially if the connection is to a blockchain.

I’ve written before on how blockchain technology can help the Internet of Things, but since that was a while ago, a brief update: a network of gadgets connected to a central server is more vulnerable than one connected to each other. It’s not only the single point of failure that is the concern – the possible manipulation of data, relatively simple when that data is centralized, is also a significant risk.

On a blockchain, however, gadgets share information with each other. “Smart contracts” can help to execute actions dependent on that information, and verification is carried out by the network itself. The security is much more hack-proof than traditional databases. And regulators can be “looped in” to the network, facilitating compliance and approval.

Blockchain IoT networks can also give rise to new business models, with “things” being owned collectively, and being economically self-sustaining. For example, a driverless car can both earn (by ferrying passengers) and spend (on tolls, parking and maintenance) its own money.

This scenario is not possible, however, without an upgrade in connectivity. 5G could offer that.

Once the new service is rolled out, San Marino perhaps could also become a testing ground for distributed IoT networks, and other latency-sensitive blockchain applications.

So, the nationwide trial is a big step forward not only for mobile networks but also for blockchain. While many experts believe that we won’t see 5G rollout until the end of this decade, we are getting closer. And San Marino, small and steeped in tradition as it may be, could end up helping pushing development of these two key technologies forward.

Blockchain and the puzzle of the Kazakh bond issue

astana kazakhstan

A few weeks ago, CoinDesk published an article about a blockchain project in Kazakhstan. The central bank is testing a blockchain-based mobile app that will allow investors to buy central bank debt directly, without passing through a broker.

I puzzled over this, as I couldn’t figure out why they needed a blockchain for that. One issuer and a wide range of buyers doesn’t need a blockchain. A database could handle that.

Blockchains aren’t designed for vertical systems, with one entity at the top.

The article went on to say that long term, the platform could be used for IPOs.

Ah, there you have it. Other entities could be invited to join the platform and use it for issuing securities, either equities or debt.

So, is Kazakhstan effectively creating a new financial market? The advantages for using blockchain technology for that are relatively obvious (fewer middlemen, faster settlement, lower costs, greater transparency).

But mobile-based?

A while ago the government of Kenya used the M-Pesa mobile money system to issue a bond. That trial was intriguing in that it facilitated financial inclusion by offering citizens with very little money the opportunity to not only earn a return on the little they have, but also to purchase their first saving product. The minimum investment was KSh3,000 (approximately $30), and it was open to all Kenyans with an M-Pesa mobile money account, over half the population.

But, the government didn’t use a blockchain. There was no need to, and not just because they already had an efficient distribution in place. They also didn’t need to because the relationship was one-to-many (issuer to buyers).

Blockchains are good for many-to-many relationships. If the Kazakh project does indeed end up including other issuers, the trial makes sense. But for now, it doesn’t. Blockchain’s potential won’t be tested with one central issuer.

It also doesn’t make sense to combine IPOs with debt issuance – the two have very different mechanisms and regulation. Inviting other issuers to take advantage of the new processes would have efficiencies – but that doesn’t seem to be a main priority.

So, despite the declared expansion intentions, I still found the incongruity puzzling.

Then an “out there” thought occurred to me. Perhaps what the central bank really wants is for the bonds to circulate. On a blockchain platform it would be relatively simple. Holders trade, and the ownership changes, smoothly and without intermediaries. The ease, especially on mobile, could encourage liquidity and boost circulation.

Why would a central bank want its bonds to circulate?

Perhaps so that they could become a type of currency, exchanged in payment for services received from other institutional platform participants – utilities, for instance (electricity bill?), education (a masters’ degree?) or even taxes.

There a blockchain platform starts to make a lot of sense. Regulated institutions would be “invited” to “open an account” to which bonds could be sent. Bondholders could treat their securities as a type of bank account, earning interest when they are still and being accepted in exchange for something else (fiat money or services) when they circulate.

Using central bank debt as money? Well, isn’t that what we’re doing now, with bills and coins?

From local currency to central banks: Colu and blockchain-based tokens

Image via CNN
Image via CNN

Decentralization and fragmentation – not two words that you normally associate with currencies (or would want to, given the implied chaos). But, maybe it’s happening.

An experiment currently under way in London could reveal whether or not our relationship with money can change enough for local currencies to become possible.

Israeli firm Colu – known for their “coloured coins” platform – recently launched the “Local Pound, East London” (LPEL). As its name suggests, it is a digital currency specifically designed for circulation amongst the businesses of East London.

How is this different from the normal pound? And why bother?

The aim is to boost the local economy. The LPEL plans to do this by encouraging users to spend locally – that apparently keeps money circulating in the area, rather than have it sent back to head office in Stockholm (or wherever).

The accompanying app is meant to help residents to discover (or “re-discover”?) local businesses, and to help those businesses manage transactions.

To be honest, it’s not very obvious what the advantages are. Merchants can use the app to manage transactions, which means they don’t need to invest in a PoS system (which they almost certainly have anyway).

It works just like “normal” digital money – it can be bought (at par with the pound) using credit cards or bank transfers. This raises the question as to why the users won’t prefer to use “normal” digital money. I haven’t been able to find information on additional advantages that the LPEL platform offers (like discounts or more direct marketing, for instance?).

The “hook”, according to press reports, is that users feel good supporting local economies. (Um, maybe some, but I wouldn’t count on many.)

Additional resilience could be a factor – blockchains tend to have greater security than centralized systems. But, centralized payment rail outages are rare enough for this reason to lack conviction.

The LPEL has a sister operation in Liverpool – the Liverpool Local Pound went live in late 2016, and currently has 16,000 registered users and approximately 30 merchants on the network. Given that Liverpool has almost 500,000 people, it’s a stretch to claim that it’s a resounding success.

But, it’s good to see that the enthusiasm continues regardless, because sometimes a good idea fails to get traction simply because it’s time has not yet come.

Whether or not the LPEL takes off is beside the point, though. What really matters here is feedback, to iterate the design and to hone the message.

In interview with CoinDesk, co-founder Mike Smargon said that the objective was scale. Colu recently unified its various Tel Aviv local coins into a generic Tel Aviv coin. Not that there seem to be a lot of users there, either. In the same interview, Smargon revealed that Colu has about 50,000 users across its coins, which – subtracting Liverpool participants – leaves about 37,000 users for a city of over 3.7 million.

I puzzled for a while on how unifying coins could help “local” businesses, and on how you can combine scale with fragmentation.

But then it dawned on me: it’s actually not about small communities. It’s about testing the advantages of central bank digital currencies, starting small and working up. A smart strategy.

What’s more, last month the firm open-sourced its banking infrastructure to make it easier for central banks to experiment with blockchain-based digital currencies.  The system is already in use in one country: Barbados. In collaboration with local exchange Bitt, it has created digital Barbadian dollars, and will soon complement that with digital dollars from Aruba and the Bahamas.

The company is in the process of applying for an e-money license in the UK, so I imagine we can expect further local launches. It also recently announced partnerships with asset brokerage firm eToro and trading app Lykke, and is a member of blockchain consortium Hyperledger. So we will most likely see interesting innovations that open our eyes to the potential of local currencies.

Even if practicality continues to be an issue, the idea of combining the advantages of community with the scope of large scale is intriguing.

And not only in the realm of finance and commerce. Let’s have a think what this could do to politics and governance, too.

Shipping blues and blockchain solutions

by Frank McKenna via StockSnap
by Frank McKenna via StockSnap

I was startled to see yesterday that China’s freight activity has been in contraction for the past six months. Given the country’s push to increase its global footprint, and its dependence on manufacturing and exports, this doesn’t look good.

So I did a bit more digging and saw that the Baltic Dry index, which assesses the price of shipping raw materials by sea, shows that freight activity overall has been falling sharply since April (which did not happen in the previous two years), and is well below 2014 levels.

Global shipping is slowing down?

All the more reason, then, to reduce costs and streamline processes, as fast as possible.

With several enterprise firms around the world examining the potential impact of blockchain technology on supply chain logistics, progress is being made.

Microsoft’s Project Manifest platform plans to track everything from auto parts to medical devices, and as of May 2017 had 13 members, including Auburn University and supply chain tech firm Mojix. One pillar of the project is the connection of RFID scanners to the ethereum blockchain. Previously, Auburn University’s lab succeeded in combining RFID technology with the electronic data interchange transaction standard that improves supply chain traceability using centralized databases. It will be interesting to see what impact decentralized ones will have.

Earlier this year, the Danish shipping giant Maersk revealed the completion of its first live blockchain trial, aimed at reducing the amount of expensive and time-consuming (not to mention error-prone) paperwork that a global supply chain requires. A 2014 study commissioned by the company showed that an average of 200 separate transactions, passing through the hands of 30 counterparties, are involved in the shipment of a product using a shipping container. A blockchain platform can streamline the verification and transfer of the relevant documents, giving the counterparties access to the real-time information they need to process their part.

After a difficult year which saw profits decline, plus the rocky outlook for global shipping signalled above, the cost reduction a live platform could offer would be welcome.

Late last year, the port of Rotterdam formed a blockchain consortium focused on logistics, along with ABM Amro, Royal FloraHolland (which ships flowers) and several research institutions. The group plans to focus on testing the sharing of contractual and logistical information.

And there are many others.

However, given the obvious inefficiencies, and the shaky position of world freight – not to mention its importance in the global economy – it is surprising that there aren’t more.

You know the adage about complex systems not changing until they absolutely have to? That time may have come.

 

Putting blockchain hype in its place

by Joshua Earle via Unsplash
by Joshua Earle via Unsplash

I get so annoyed when blockchain hypesters bang on about how “blockchain will change the world”, and it’s the “most revolutionary technology to emerge since the internet”. (And I say this as an enthusiast who is excited about what it can do.)

Why does it bother me so much? Because they are empty claims. Sure, the world will change. But that will happen even without blockchain technology. Stuff changes.

And, blockchain won’t change everything. Bagels will probably still be the same (I hope, anyway). African safaris will probably continue to run as always, and childbirth (unfortunately) is unlikely to see many blockchain efficiencies.

So, enough with the empty claims that only serve to turn thinking people away, once they’re tired of rolling their eyes.

And anyway, to put blockchain fans (like myself) in their place, check out this chart from Axios:

Axios chart
chart by Axios

Investment in AI is dwarfing that in blockchain, even including ICOs. (Blockchain investment is not included in the chart – see? blockchain isn’t even in the top three of “next-generation technologies”.)

According to CoinDesk’s State of Blockchain 2017 report, blockchain investment in 2016 reached $500m. Axios’ chart shows that investment in artificial intelligence in the same period reached $3.6bn… Over seven times as much!!!

Even when you add in the digital token frenzy of 2017, investment in AI businesses so far this year continues to outpace that in blockchain businesses by a factor of more than three.

If blockchain were the “most revolutionary technology” as some in my sector like to claim, wouldn’t smart money be overwhelmingly flowing there?

Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that blockchain technology will have a big impact on processes, structures and even philosophical issues. And I am excited to work in this space, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. But, it’s not the only show in town. And keeping a big-picture perspective will help us to see beyond the knee-jerk application and the “me-too” ICOs, and truly understand what a profound role it will play in the evolution of societies and systems.

It will also help us to understand that the impact will be uneven. And that the technology is just part of other profound changes that actually began some time before bitcoin appeared.

With that understanding, we can hopefully waste less time, and get down to some real work.

Sovereign identity and the Knights of Malta

Palazzo_di_Malta,_Roma 2

While looking into passports for sale the other day (not for me, you understand… not yet, anyway), I came across a name that I had heard before but knew very little about. So I did some digging and almost had my mind blown.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta – also known as the Knights of Malta, or Knights Hospitaller – is a religious order with ties to the Holy See that dates back to the early 12th century. But, it is also an independent, sovereign subject of international law.

Its mission is still, almost 1000 years later, to care for the sick and infirm, especially those displaced by conflict. As well as its 13,500 members, it has 80,000 volunteers and employs approximately 25,000 medical personnel.

So, it is an NGO with sovereign status. It can negotiate with other governments as a sovereign entity. Other global NGOs such as Caritas, Greenpeace and Médecins sans Frontières need the backing of a sovereign power. The Knights of Malta don’t, because they are one.

It doesn’t have any territory, except for two buildings in Rome, both of which have extraterritorial status (which means that they are technically not part of Italy – much like embassies).

In 1998, however, it signed a treaty with Malta for the use of the upper portion of Fort St. Angelo in the city of Birgu (for the next 99 years). Technically, this will also be a sovereign territory, but the Order will not be able to grant asylum to anyone, and Maltese law applies. At the moment, it appears to be used for historical and cultural activities.

And get this: the Sovereign Military Order of Malta can issue stamps, currency and passports.

Three of them, to be precise. The Order issues passports to the Grand Master, the Deputy Grand Master, and the Chancellor of the Order.

It has diplomatic relations with over 100 states, including the European Union, which means embassies. It also has observer status at the United Nations (along with the Red Cross, the Council of Europe, the African Development Bank, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and a host of other not-for-profit academic and regional associations), which entitles it to participate in the work of the UN General Assembly.

What I find most intriguing about this is the concept of sovereignty being granted to an organization that has no territory and no citizens (sort of). True, it was granted almost a millennium ago, and no government has dared to attempt to alter that.

Personally, I hope that they never do. I find the mix of chivalry and honour, combined with the long reach of history, totally captivating.

And the notion that sovereignty does not always require the traditional parameters of borders and citizens opens up a new understanding of what could become possible as identity is redefined.

Citizenship for sale – a blockchain business model?

by Leo Rivas-Micoud for Stocksnap - sovereign identity
by Leo Rivas-Micoud for Stocksnap

According to an article I stumbled on in Fortune, approximately $2bn a year is spent on buying citizenship. The exchange is usually dressed up as real estate or business investment and a certain minimum is generally established, but the purpose is clear, and an increasing number of nations are making good money on this.

For example, an IMF report from 2015 puts the income from selling passports for St. Kitts and Nevis at about 25% of GDP. While the economy is small, that is still a staggering statistic.

A recent report in the Financial Times highlighted this growing global phenomenon from a tax perspective:

“The search for second passports and offshore havens is beginning to take on a last-helicopter-out-of-Saigon urgency as capital controls, tax reporting and visa procedures tighten up around the world.”

Other reasons cited are political instability and fear of persecution. According to the IMF, there has recently been a surge of wealthy Chinese and Russians buyers, with an increasing number coming from the Middle East, where tax avoidance is obviously not the issue.

This raises the question: why shouldn’t citizenship be a commodity?

What does citizenship actually mean?

According to Merriam Webster, a citizen is “a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it”. So, it’s an exchange of allegiance in exchange for protection.

Why, then, is it not transferable? If your state is not protecting you, why can’t you transfer your allegiance to one that will?

Because citizens are considered resources by the countries they are born into. They work, which contributes to economic development. And they pay taxes, which contributes to public finance. This “what’s mine is mine” mentality also explains the concept of capital controls imposed by some countries to stop citizens from sending their wealth abroad.

In the increasingly free market world in which we live – in which we can choose who gives us our electricity, phone service, groceries – it is extraordinary that a similar philosophy isn’t being applied to citizenship. If governments actually had to convince (rather than force) their people to stay, it’s very likely that there would greater efficiency and less corruption in government spending.

If market incentives came into play, the role of government could evolve to focus more on protection and service. Tax rates would be more directly associated with the amenities offered, and citizenship would become a matter of proud choice rather than limiting obligation.

A totally free market concept, though, would perhaps leave the geopolitical balance vulnerable to instability. If a country cannot, for whatever reason, compete with another then the unstoppable flow of people would leave one poor and bankrupt, which would open up the temptation of annexation or even invasion.

And it’s not hard to envision circumstances beyond a government’s control. Natural disasters, a lack of natural resources or poor geography could condemn a nation to poverty and chaos, no matter how pure the government’s intentions. The resulting flood of people to neighbouring regions would put a strain on the receiving country’s resources in the short term, until the entrants find their feet and start contributing.

Along with aid from international organizations, nations depleted by exodus could be helped by the offering appealing amenities at relatively low prices. Attractive investment opportunities, for example, or education facilities, or simply relative stability. As with businesses, the affected governments would need to develop a differentiating offering to attract citizens.

As the article in Fortune pointed out, the possibility of buying citizenship exists, but the choices are limited and available only to the very rich.

Now, bring into the picture the concept of blockchain-based sovereign identity, in which a person’s official name does not depend on a state-issued document, but can be held securely and electronically by each individual. No government would have the right to take that name away, or to pretend that the person does not exist – a blockchain-based solution could ensure that. This name could be assigned the nationality it chooses. It would also reveal any financial or even criminal history, if applicable, which – on a blockchain-based solution – could not be retroactively altered.

Add the financial commitment of a purchase, and you can begin to imagine a whole new business model. Individuals that cannot afford the initial purchase price could enter into a financing agreement with one of a range of approved institutions, and pay the lender back through future earnings, possibly with the help of subsidies from the receiving government.

This could lead to selection bias – only those with reasonable prospects would be welcomed by their chosen domicile. After all, criminal records would be harder to hide. This could lead to some unfair calls, but since the bulk of anti-immigration sentiment usually stems from fear of increased crime, some sort of filter could end up making immigrants more readily accepted by their new neighbours. Those that through no fault of their own end up being blocked could perhaps be eligible for additional aid and/or the opportunity to seek a sponsor.

Education would also be easier to prove, as verified certification could be added to the identity’s history. Governments could even end up “bidding” for the best-educated immigrants.

The paperwork involved would be eased by the validation inherent in a blockchain platform. And the immigrants would have a much easier time integrating, as access to financial services, accomodation and utilities would be helped by reduced documentation and history requirements.

Cost vs benefit? It would be up to individual governments to decide what they offer, and at what price. This quasi-free market approach would have effects beyond that of economic value. It would make governments more conscious of their role, and see it less as a privilege and more as an opportunity. (Imagine if public salaries were tied to the results of satisfaction polls…). Also, citizens around the world would be more conscious of what their government does for them.

Obviously the idea is a lot more complicated than the brief suppositions laid out here. But passport shopping is already an economic fact. Should it be only available to the very rich?

Blockchain technology could offer the breakthrough that will enable the activation of sovereign identities tied to convenient nationalities – while at the same time incentivizing governments around the world to better understand what their purpose is.

What blockchain identity can learn from India’s Aadhaar platform

by Timon Studler via Unsplash
by Timon Studler via Unsplash

An issue is currently being debated in India’s courts that could affect the development of blockchain-based identity programs worldwide.

I’m talking about the Aadhaar platform, which is leaving a trail of takeaways for others to learn from.

Given the proliferation of startups and official institutions looking at the problem of self-sovereign, immutable digital identities, a look at Aadhaar’s successes and obstacles could help with the design of lofty goals and sweeping implementation.

In 2010, the Indian government issued the first Aadhaar identity number, a unique rendering of personal data, with the aim of documenting all of India on a digital platform using biometric identifiers.

That in itself is staggering – how do you coordinate the inscription of 1.3bn people, including the scanning of fingerprints and irises for each individual?

The first main takeaway is that it is possible. In just over 6 years, approximately 1.15bn people have been issued Aadhaar numbers, including almost 100% of the over-18 population. That’s more than the entire populations of the US, Europe, Australia and South Korea combined.

True, it took a massive rollout of administrators and digital readers, but the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) showed that it could be done. At its peak, over 1 million people were being processed each day.

Second, certain rules need to be set out from the beginning. Is the program mandatory or optional? If mandatory, how will enforcement be carried out? If optional, how will the old and new systems cohabitate?

The Aadhaar program is optional. But a recent amendment to the Income Tax act stipulated that an Aadhaar number was required to file a return – which pretty much makes it mandatory. Last week the Supreme Court upheld this law, but also ruled that those without an Aadhaar number should still be able to pay taxes, until the broader privacy issues can be decided by the Constitutional bench. On the one hand, good news (for now) for privacy activists and for citizens who don’t (for whatever reason) have a card. On the other, an administrative mess for the government, which could have been mitigated with clearer parameters at the outset.

Also, one of the main incentives for the government is the opportunity to streamline administration and reduce “leakage”, the amount of aid paid to “false” identities. However, there is still some confusion as to whether or not an Aadhaar number is a requisite for government aid. Several official agencies seem to think that it is, but the Supreme Court has ruled that it isn’t.

Furthermore, while the first cards were introduced in 2010, legislation backing the project (the Aadhaar Act and the Aadhaar Regulations) did not pass until 2016, and is often criticized as being unclear.

Third, the privacy issue will always be a problem, however great the efficiencies. Concerns have been raised about the lack of clear regulation on the process of sharing identity information, as well as the lack of redress and appeal if you feel your data has been mishandled.

The Aadhaar Act mentioned above authorises any official at the level of District Judge or higher to access an individual’s identity information, excluding the biometric data – that limitation doesn’t apply to officials with rank of Joint Secretary or higher. Given India’s reputation as the “most corrupt country in Asia”, this raises some concerns.

And while the government understandably wants to standardize administration, some groups are raising the alarm over the volume of data on each individual the government would have in its power, the capacity for tracking and the spectre of mass surveillance.

The fourth lesson, a surprising one, is that biometrics are complicated. It turns out that not everyone has fingerprints that lend themselves to being scanned. Apart from the very young, manual labourers often have worn hands due to repeated handling of rough objects. One area in north Delhi reported a 10% fail rate when reading fingerprints.

The same goes for eyes – the elderly often have degraded irises, so getting a clear reading can be challenging.

Fifth, even with biometrics, falsifications will emerge. In some cases, inscription agencies took advantage of a rule that said that biometrics were not always required (if fingerprints or irises were not clear, for instance), In others, hackers were able to bypass the scanning requirements.

Sixth, census statistics are unreliable, which makes it more difficult to plan and implement projects that affect populations. The Aadhaar web page shows what percentage of the population are inscribed, by province. In Delhi, that reaches almost 120%. It turns out that the population figures are “estimates”.

Seventh, “inclusion” is elusive but possible. While bringing undocumented citizens “into” the system was touted as one of the main goals – millions of people don’t even have a birth certificate due to an inefficient registry system – apparently almost all of those who enrolled in Aadhaar already had an official ID.

So, what about those without? Over 200,000 undocumented citizens took advantage of the “introducer” option, in which someone with an Aadhaar number vouches for someone with no official identification.

And, it’s worth noting that the Aadhaar number does not substitute a government-issued ID, so it cannot be used for cross-border travel, for instance. However, Aadhaar holders without any other ID can now get mobile phones and open bank accounts, something that they couldn’t do before.

Takeaway number eight is that any broad platform needs to be designed for growth. Even after the successful rollout and the years of experience with the system, experts admit that they don’t know what else the platform will be adapted for, or what other functionalities will be built on top. However, Aadhaar has been designed to allow other private and public applications, and already innovations and apps are emerging from the ecosystem.

The hope is that Aadhaar will become a “universal id”, in that it grants the holder access to a wide range of services. Also, it aims to reduce onboarding expenses for businesses such as mobile operators, landlords, employers and even banks, allowing them to bypass most of the cumbersome KYC requirements by using information already in the system.

The last lesson is to question the technology. Aadhaar is not a blockchain solution. That in itself calls into question the need to use the blockchain for national identity. If the verification of the data needs to be centralized, and if transparency is not a fundamental feature, then a distributed database could suffice.

True, the idea of identity being centralized in the hands of the government may be disquieting to many. But for a digital version to be useful on a national or pan-national scale, it needs to be accepted by the jurisdictions in question. What will incentivize governments to cede control over the fundamental role of granting citizenship?

The Aadhaar project is encouraging in that it is leading the way in showing what can be done today. Blockchain technology, however, allows us to contemplate other forms of identity, new uses for that information, and evolving roles for government. It is inviting us to think about what could be done tomorrow.

A blockchain-based identity consortium

by Daniel Monteiro via StockSnap
by Daniel Monteiro via StockSnap

The search for the holy grail of blockchain technology – robust, global and easy-to-use identity solutions – seems to be picking up.

When you think about it, all blockchain applications rely on identity. Your bitcoin wallet, trade finance operation, connected device and energy transaction – they all count on data originating somewhere. The degrees of available information about the identity may change according to the application – but everything needs to have a reliably-identified origin and a destination, even if it’s just aseries of characters.

So it’s understandable that activity in this space is heating up.

At Consensus 2017, Microsoft, Accenture and several startups announced the creation of the Decentralized Identity Foundation.

What’s staggering about this is the public acknowledgement by all involved – competitors as well as tech incumbents – that identity has to be a collaborative effort. From realizing that “data is the new gold” to being willing to share that gold (in this case, identity data) with others in the ecosystem is a huge step. It’s a step encouraged, though, by the knowledge that a solid digital identity is not very useful if it can only be used in limited applications. That’s pretty much where we are today, with different logins for each website, and repetitive information needed for each sign-up.

There is so much more going on in the identity space that volumes could be written (and I will get around to it), but for today I just want to take a brief look at the members of the consortium, to get a feel for the type of products that could emerge:

Microsoft has been working on decentralized identity for some time. Over a year ago it partnered with ethereum consultancy ConsenSys and startup Blockstack Labs (more on them below) to build an open-source identity platform aimed at integrating the bitcoin and ethereum blockchains. Earlier this year it announced a new partnership with startup Tierion (more on them below) to investigate how decentralized identities linked to a blockchain could validate data, claims and agreements.

Professional services giant Accenture doesn’t seem to have been quite as active on the blockchain-based identity front, but its work on blockchain in general has been ramping up, with the unveiling of an innovative hardware solution for the protection of private keys.

Tierion has built a platform that creates a verifiable record of any data, file or business process on the blockchain. It is currently working with Microsoft on blockchain-based attestations (= something that confirms and authenticates) and with Dutch giant Philips on an unspecified project in the healthcare sector.

Gem pivoted in early 2016 away from bitcoin APIs to custom blockchain applications focusing on healthcare and supply chains. It is working with US financial services company Capital One in blockchain-based healthcare claims management, and Philips Healthcare on the creation of blockchain-based wellness apps, global patient ID software and secure electronic medical records. Its web states that it is also working on “global identifiers to link together data belonging to a person or asset, eliminating time consuming reconciliation, providing real-time transparency, reducing risk and creating better outcomes”.

Blockstack is building a “decentralized internet”, in which the content is pulled from peers rather than from centralized servers. Users access locally-owned apps and websites via a login based on identity… that the user owns. The startup began life in 2013 as Onename, which registered blockchain-based domain names. Initially built on the Namecoin blockchain, the system migrated to bitcoin and now also supports ethereum and zcash.

Netki was founded in 2014, and early the following year launched an innovative wallet naming service. It has since developed a system for blockchain-based identity in which a user’s details are not recorded on the blockchain itself, but on an application layer that allows for the system to work on multiple protocols. It is also a member of Hyperledger, and has contributed its work on digital identity solutions for worldwide regulatory compliance and legal non-repudiation. Late last year it participated in the launch, together with PwC, Bloq and Libra, of an enterprise platform based on bitcoin, called Vulcan Digital Asset Services. Its service is part of the IBM blockchain ecosystem. And at Consensus last month, it announced its collaboration with Barbados-based exchange Bitt in the compliant on-boarding of customers.

Uport was built by ethereum consultancy ConsenSys, with the aim of creating an open-source identity service on the ethereum blockchain, in the hope of giving users control of their information. Crypto exchange Coinbase has indicated that its messaging app Token (currently in testing) will include support for Uport’s identity service.

Berlin-based BigchainDB was originally Ascribe, a blockchain-based art authentication service. Since then the firm has rebranded, and now focuses on developing blockchain solutions for enterprises. It offers a combination of blockchain-like features with some traditional database characteristics, such as noSQL query language and faster transaction rates. In early 2016 it launched the IPDB Foundation, a non-profit aimed at developing the ecosystem around a new kind of blockchain-based database, built to serve identity and licensing needs.

The not-for-profit Sovrin Foundation (created in 2016 by blockchain startup Evernym) has an international board of trustees that includes representatives from banks, credit unions, education and retail. Its goal is to develop an ecosystem around a ledger (built and contributed by Evernym) on which individuals control their identities. It recently handed over its Project Indy – an identity solution built on a hybrid blockchain platform – to the Hyperledger consortium (of which is is a member). One of the innovations is that the identity information is never written to the ledger. Bits of it get anchored to the ledger, so there’s proof it existed on a certain day.

Civic launched in 2016 to stop identity theft, and recently announced the launch of a login authentication service – a blockchain-based platform that will offer users the chance to develop one digital identity, and use that to log in to any website without being tracked. Civic users will be able to prove their identity when logging in, without sharing that information with the website.

IDEO is an international design and consulting firm. Its research arm IDEO CoLab has identified blockchain technology as one of four key technologies that will impact society.

Mooti has developed a blockchain-based service that not only protects your identity, but will also validate the relevant components for web services or logins, without actually revealing information. Like Netki, its “Identity Chain” is part of IBM’s blockchain ecosystem.

Blockchain Foundry grew out of Syscoin, a cryptocurrency and protocol that allows near-zero cost financial transactions on a wide variety of marketplaces. The foundry focuses mainly on data security, leveraging decentralized networks, and later this year will roll out proof-of-concepts for medical, legal and real estate applications.. Last year it incorporated into Microsoft’s Azure platform, offering e-commerce solution Blockchain Market.

Iceland-based Authenteq offers automatic identity verification that can be installed via an API on just about any online marketplace or website. Its goal is to increase trust in P2P communities.

Taqanu, based in Norway, is developing banking services for people without a fixed address. It offers financial inclusion to refugees and others without a fixed address, by offering them a blockchain-based self-sovereign digital ID and the chance to accumulate a credit history.

Cybersecurity company RSA – known for its work in encryption, identity and cyber threat detection – has been ramping up its involvement in the blockchain space, giving sector startups an increasing amount of attention at the company’s renowned cybersecurity conferences.

South Africa-based Consent initially launched in 2015 with the goal of helping secure the integrity of medical records on a blockchain, but soon widened its scope to include financial know-your-customer (KYC) processes.

Danube Tech was set up in Vienna in 2015 to develop technology related to digital identity, such as blockchain-based identifier registration infrastructure including personal clouds, data transfer protocols and connectivity.

IOTA has focused on developing a blockchain for the Internet of Things, with fast throughput of micropayments. The protocol makes users and validators the same entity, eliminating the need to charge transaction fees. One of its current partners is German electrical utility’s R&D group Innogy Consulting.