Blockchain Could Provide ID for Those Who Need It Most

Students in developing countries and refugees fleeing violence need reliable proof of their identity — and the blockchain might just work

Credit: Sumy Sadurni/Getty Images

AAkile Wua Justice chuckles with pride as he talks about graduating from his three-year degree at Uganda’s Cavendish University last year. Competition for graduate work is intense, but qualified engineers can face an unexpected problem — battling bureaucracy, fees, and fraud to prove they really are qualified.

The telecommunications and engineering graduate says that students are given one official certificate and one paper copy, and then have to have these certificates validated with signatures and stamps from various officials. The process can cost as much as $300 and take six months. “When you graduate you’re given a certificate, but if there is any mistake on it, or if you lose it, it’s on you,” says Justice. “Termites can even eat your certificates, so you have to keep them safe. Some of us travel from the village where we live, and there is always the worry our certificates may not be there when we get back.”

Lost or stolen certificates can only be replaced after a police investigation and at the cost of $70 (250,000 Ugandan shillings) per certificate. It’s a significant burden in a country where the average annual salary is about $18,000 per year, and where youth unemployment is one of the highest in Africa. Graduates in the U.S. could simply request a copy of their certificate — and in any case, are rarely even asked for paper proof of their qualifications — yet graduates in many countries like Uganda can lose money and miss work opportunities if their documentation is lost, damaged, or stolen.

Blockchain is a decentralized database that stores information, an immutable digital ledger that can be applied to any number of uses.

Intrigued about how to improve such an inefficient system, Justice started working with the Norwegian startup Diwala in 2018. The company aims to address the global issue of identity theft and certification fraud by creating a digital, blockchain-backed version of certificates like Justice’s. Founded by two Norwegians in 2017, the startup is using technology to tackle the existing cumbersome educational certification structure, but has bigger plans for its future.

Blockchain is a decentralized database that stores information, an immutable digital ledger that can be applied to any number of uses. Its key characteristic is that every transaction is recorded centrally and cannot be deleted, in contrast to both paper records and other centralized data repositories that can be hacked, altered, or removed, in some cases with a single accidental keystroke.

By using blockchain, Diwala can ensure that documents confirming someone’s identity and qualifications are safely stored, and can’t be altered or forged. As part of Diwala’s trial in Kenya and Uganda, university administrators can log in online to a system that verifies identity using uPort, an open identity product designed to fit blockchain technology, and then create certificates for graduates who have completed their course. They can then share a link to the verified certificate via email, messaging app, or by sending the link.

Diwala offers three services: It allows institutions to create and issue cryptographically signed and secure credentials; provides students with verifiable credentials, which can be shared digitally with employees and officials; and provides verification and proof that data is trustworthy. Each individual has a skill-ID, an identity record that includes education and work history.

Oslo-based Thea Sommerseth Myhren, the CEO and co-founder of Diwala, says these skill IDs should include as much information as possible, from university credentials to internships, jobs, and volunteer project work. Longer-term, Diwala wants its technology to provide refugees with “digitally authenticated identification documents” that governments and aid agencies will recognize. There are currently 70.8 million people around the world who have been forced from their homes, including nearly 25.9 million refugees, more than half of whom are under the age of 18, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This kind of verified identity could help refugees access banking, contractual documentation, and education, which all require legal ID — something refugees often lose when escaping conflict.

Myhren predicts Diwala will provide a faster, more secure, and cheaper alternative to current bureaucratic systems, and claims it could reduce current costs by 80%. She launched Diwala specifically to address the needs of the young and displaced. Those growing up in one of Uganda’s refugee camps may have access to various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but no access to the information those NGOs hold about them. Refugees fleeing a war zone like Syria, where the government is in disarray and many of the administrative systems defunct, can find it difficult, time-consuming, or just impossible to prove their qualifications or work history.

While blockchain is difficult to understand for many, Diwala users don’t need to understand the technicalities of the system. All they need is access to an internet connection. Though only 21% of Ugandans have regular access to the internet, the country is quietly solidifying its role as a blockchain hub for Africa, with more than 40,000 people signed up for the cryptocurrency exchange platform Binance and signs of an open-minded policy position from the government.

A far bigger obstacle than tech literacy may be the problem of trust. While a series of high profile data scandals have rocked the technology industry in Europe and the U.S., the stakes can be far higher for vulnerable people and refugees.

Chris Boian, a senior communications officer at the UNHCR, said that refugees fleeing Syria, for example, have to trust that the personal information they are sharing will not make it into the hands of ISIS. These concerns inform the UNHCR’s own Biometric Identity Management System, which records information on refugees. “We’re extremely sensitive about sharing that and we’re very protective of identities, because people who have fled life-threatening situations, in our experience, really aren’t that keen to have their identities circulating publicly.”

“We need to build systems that allow people to essentially bootstrap themselves using these kinds of tapestry credentials.”

Diwala isn’t the only company exploring ideas of storing identity on blockchain. IBM has explored a similar idea for a digital drivers’ license in the U.S., and a school in Germany has begun issuing course-based certifications on blockchain. Once fully developed, all these systems will form part of a much-needed network of identity verification said Phil Windley, chair of the Sovrin Foundation, a nonprofit established to govern the world’s first self-sovereign identity (SSI) network.

Drawing on a recent report from the New America Foundation, Windley explained how different types of credentials can be used together to give a fuller picture of a person’s identity. A “monument credential” is a government-issued formal ID like a birth certificate or passport, while “tapestry credentials” document when someone was in a refugee camp or had a job. “We need to build systems that allow people to essentially bootstrap themselves using these kinds of tapestry credentials,” says Windley. “[That] allows them to go to school or access health care, or many of the other activities which right now we just say, ‘oh you don’t have a birth certificate, then you can’t enroll your kids in school, sorry.’”

For Justice, the Diwala app solves a very immediate problem. “Diwala is going to help me in the near future because I can more efficiently share my papers with employers. We who live in the village usually have to take an eight-hour drive back to get my original certificates when I need to apply for a job, as I keep them there for safekeeping.”

Benjamin’s writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, New Republic, and Pacific Standard, among others. You can find all of his work at benjaminopowers.com

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