How Refugees Are Helping Create Blockchain’s Brand New World

Jessi Hempel at Wired: “Though best known for underpinning volatile cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin and Ethereum, blockchain technology has a number of qualities which make it appealing for record-keeping. A distributed ledger doesn’t depend on a central authority to verify its existence, or to facilitate transactions within it, which makes it less vulnerable to tampering. By using applications that are built on the ‘chain, individuals may be able to build up records over time, use those records across borders as a form of identity—essentially creating the trust they need to interact with the world, without depending on a centralized authority, like a government or a bank, to vouch for them.

For now, these efforts are small experiments. In Finland, the Finnish Immigration Service offers refugees a prepaid Mastercard developed by the Helsinki-based startup MONI that also links to a digital identity, composed of the record of one’s financial transactions, which is stored on the blockchain. In Moldova, the government is working with digital identification expertsfrom the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) to brainstorm ways to use blockchain to provide children living in rural areas with a digital identity, so it’s more difficult for traffickers to smuggle them across borders.

Among the more robust programs is a pilot the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) launched in Jordan last May. Syrian refugees stationed at the Azraq Refugee Camp receive vouchers to shop at the local grocery store. The WFP integrated blockchain into its biometric authentication technology, so Syrian refugees can cash in their vouchers at the supermarket by staring into a retina scanner. These transactions are recorded on a private Ethereum-basedblockchain, called Building Blocks. Because the blockchain eliminates the need for WFP to pay banks to facilitate transactions, Building Blocks could save the WFP as much as $150,000 each month in bank fees in Jordan alone. The program has been so successful that by the end of the year, the WFP plans to expand the technology throughout Jordan. Blockchain enthusiasts imagine a future in which refugees can access more than just food vouchers, accumulating a transaction history that could stand in as a credit history when they attempt to resettle….

But in the rush to apply blockchain technology to every problem, many point out that relying on the ledger may have unintended consequences. As the Blockchain for Social Impact chief technology officer at ConsenSys, Robert Greenfeld IV writes, blockchain-based identity “isn’t a silver bullet, and if we don’t think about it/build it carefully, malicious actors could still capitalize on it as an element of control.” If companies rely on private blockchains, he warns, there’s a danger that the individual permissions will prevent these identity records from being used in multiple places. (Many of these projects, like the UNWFP project, are built on private blockchains so that organizations can exert more control over their development.) “If we don’t start to collaborate together with populations, we risk ending up with a bunch of siloed solutions,” says Greenfeld.

For his part, Greenfeld suggests governments could easily use state-sponsored machine learning algorithms to monitor public blockchain activity. But as bitcoin enthusiasts branch out of their get-rich-quick schemes to wrestle with how to make the web more equitable for everyone, they have the power to craft a world of their own devising. The early web should be a lesson to the bitcoin enthusiasts as they promote the blockchain’s potential. Right now we have the power to determine its direction; the dangers exist, but the potential is enormous….(More)”