Rebecca Lowe: Identity, freedom, and blockchain

Everyone seems to be talking about identity at the moment. Whether it’s fights over personal pronouns, transgender rights, or demographic voting patterns, few topics are so fraught.

Yet difficult questions about personal identity have surely arisen as long as there have been people. And this is hardly surprising. What am I? Which things about me are critical to who I am? What might any of that mean in terms of my place on this earth? Can I know what or who you are? And how should that affect how we relate to each other and everyone else?

These kinds of timeless questions permeate informal and formal social interactions alike, but new technology brings up new twists. How much time did you spend working out how best to use the 160 characters in your Twitter bio? Do you reveal your faith on Facebook? Would you reveal it on a digital census form? Can you be friends with a robot?

Some of these questions are just updated versions of the old ones. But some of the most interesting new variants relate to personal freedom and the effect technological advancement might have on the necessary interactions we have with the state.

I’ve been thinking about all this because, recently, FREER published a new paper on blockchain, by Eddie Hughes MP. Eddie makes a convincing case for the government to embrace the opportunities that such distributive ledger technologies (DLTs) offer both for making efficiency savings and for directly empowering citizens. He makes a series of strong proposals—including the establishment of a UK-based international blockchain competition, and a savings target for government departments—and we’re looking forward to FREER carrying out further research into DLTs and other world-changing innovations.

There’s a paragraph in the paper, however, hidden somewhere in the chapter entitled ‘Blockchain: Abroad’, which refers to the potential future opportunities of what’s generally referred to as ‘digital identity infrastructure’. This arises thanks to a substantial section about Estonia, which has famously become a world leader in blockchain technology. Blockchain underpins the comprehensive digital platform that links 99 per cent of the country’s government services. But, as Eddie points out, much of this digital advancement is tied—through an embrace of digital signatures—to ID cards, mobile-IDs, or Smart-IDs.

While the UK clearly has much to learn from Estonia’s technological innovations, we know from past experience that the introduction of any kind of mandatory state ID cards would not be countenanced by the UK public. And, as a liberal, I’m very pleased about that. I just don’t think it’d be in any sense right for the state to have that sort of focused full-time control over us. I also have particular qualms about the way in which it would entail a government-run centralisation of the most personal pieces of information about us—the information that, I suppose, makes up the core of our digital identities.

Problems remain, however, regarding the way in which people who do not have certain documentation can lack access to crucial services. And, in a globalised world, parts of our digital identity are increasingly our passport to much more than just travel. So, what if it wasn’t the state—or any third party—that had control over this information? It’s important to recognise the difference between the kind of digital infrastructure that could afford you full control over and access to your own data, which would be your property, and an enforced state ID-card system, which took effective ownership of your details and could technically be used to track your every step. Our data is valuable, and our welfare can depend on it, yet all too often we don’t know where it is, never mind having the assurance that we own and can control its use. Of course, it’s not just the state we need to worry about here: companies want, and often already have, your data, too.

Many questions remain. But new technologies, such as blockchain, which focus on transparent data distribution, cut out intermediaries, and can afford complete control to the data’s subject, should offer some solace to those of us who worry about the intrusions and interventions of the digital identity age. Eddie’s paper offers sensible proposals for ways in which the government might use blockchain and associated technologies to increase social freedom and reduce bureaucracy. But this might only be the tip of the iceberg.

Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER.

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