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

Wayan Vota at ICTworks: “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….

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….(More)”