A Really Bad Blockchain Idea: Digital Identity Cards for Rohingya Refugees

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The Rohingya Project claims to be a grassroots initiative that will empower Rohingya refugees with a blockchain-leveraged financial ecosystem tied to digital identity cards.
First, the Rohingya Project will utilize a unique multi-layered verification methodology to authentically confirm Rohingya ancestry through a series of interviews and assessments that rigorously test on 5 areas: Geographical, Social, Language, Culture, and Occupational.
Next, this new digital identity will cryptographically prove Rohingya existence and family relations, and record them on a universal immutable blockchain distributed public ledger. Then, Rohingya will be able to leverage their unique digital identities to crowdfunded resources and empower themselves economically and socially.
And yes, that’s the exact terms they use on their website.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Concerns about Rohingya data collection are not new, so Linda Raftree‘s Facebook post about blockchain for biometrics started a spirited discussion on this escalation of techno-utopia. Several people put forth great points about the Rohingya Project’s potential failings. For me, there were four key questions originating in the discussion that we should all be debating:
1. Who Determines Ethnicity?
Ethnicity isn’t a scientific way to categorize humans. Ethnic groups are based on human constructs such as common ancestry, language, society, culture, or nationality. Who are the Rohingya Project to be the ones determining who is Rohingya or not? And what is this rigorous assessment they have that will do what science cannot?
Might it be better not to perpetuate the very divisions that cause these issues? Or at the very least, let people self-determine their own ethnicity.
2. Why Digitally Identify Refugees?
Let’s say that we could group a people based on objective metrics. Should we? Especially if that group is persecuted where it currently lives and in many of its surrounding countries? Wouldn’t making a list of who is persecuted be a handy reference for those who seek to persecute more?
Instead, shouldn’t we focus on changing the mindset of the persecutors and stop the persecution?
3. Why Blockchain for Biometrics?
How could linking a highly persecuted people’s biometric information, such as fingerprints, iris scans, and photographs, to a public, universal, and immutable distributed ledger be a good thing?
Might it be highly irresponsible to digitize all that information? Couldn’t that data be used by nefarious actors to perpetuate new and worse exploitation of Rohingya? India has already lost Aadhaar data and the Equafax lost Americans’ data. How will the small, lightly funded Rohingya Project do better?
Could it be possible that old-fashioned paper forms are a better solution than digital identity cards? Maybe laminate them for greater durability, but paper identity cards can be hidden, even destroyed if needed, to conceal information that could be used against the owner.
4. Why Experiment on the Powerless?
Rohingya refugees already suffer from massive power imbalances, and now they’ll be asked to give up their digital privacy, and use experimental technology, as part of an NGO’s experiment, in order to get needed services.
Its not like they’ll have the agency to say no. They are homeless, often penniless refugees, who will probably have no realistic way to opt-out of digital identity cards, even if they don’t want to be experimented on while they flee persecution.
Shouldn’t we be more conscious of our own exploitation of refugees’ vulnerability, when we ask them to entertain our half-baked whiz-bang solutions? Especially when the technology is experimental itself.
Stop the Blockchain Hype
We are certainly reaching the peak of inflated expectations with blockchain. When a failing company can add “blockchain” to its name and triple its stock price, we shouldn’t be surprised when unknown actors think blockchain is a way to launch their NGO into global prominence. Sadly, the Rohingya Project will not be the last to do this.
As an industry, we need to be vigilant.
We know how to use blockchain in international development: like any other new technology, in controlled experiments, and in stable situations, until we can fully understand its positive and negative implications. Until then, we should call out those who think that blockchaining refugee biometrics is an acceptable use case.
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