THERE’S a new way to prove you are who you say you are – inspired by the tech underpinning bitcoin. Usually, when you need to verify your identity, the process is archaic, insecure and time-consuming. You get a copy of your birth certificate in the post, put it in an envelope and hope it gets to whoever is asking for it. In the digital era, this should take seconds.
But putting something as sensitive as a birth certificate online risks identity theft in the era of hacks and leaks. Now, the US state of Illinois is experimenting with a secure way of putting control of that data into its citizens’ hands, with the help of distributed ledgers, similar to the blockchain used by bitcoin.
Just last month, Illinois announced a pilot project to create “secure ‘self-sovereign’ identity” for Illinois citizens wishing to access their birth certificate. The idea is to use a blockchain-like distributed ledger that allows online access only to the people owning the ID, and any third parties granted their permission.
Illinois is working with software firm Evernym of Herriman, Utah, to create a record of who should be able to access data from the state’s birth register. Once this is done, no central authority should be required, just your say-so.
They’re not the only ones. According to a report by Garrick Hileman and Michael Rauchs at the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, UK, governments are increasingly experimenting with it, including the UK and Brazil.
Activists have long called for people to have greater control of their data. Hacks and leaks are making it too risky for authorities to be the central repository of citizens’ most vital information.
With distributed ledgers, all participants within a network can have their own identical copy of data like access permissions – so no one can view cryptographically sealed birth certificate data unless they’re meant to. Blockchains are a type of distributed ledger that gets the whole network to observe and verify transactions – such as when someone sends a bitcoin to their friend.
Distributed ledgers could be a great way to store critical data. But “the devil is always in the details”, says Dave Birch at electronic transactions consultancy Consult Hyperion. Done wrong, distributed ledgers could carve mistakes in stone. “If your midwife fat-fingers the weight of the child or the name then you’re going to have a typo in your name from birth forever,” he says. “Bullshit in, bullshit forever.”
Nonetheless, some think these projects are a step towards a world where all data is managed by the individuals who own it. It could backfire on governments, though. Citizens in Catalonia are gearing up for a referendum on independence from Spain, planned for 1 October. It has been termed “illegal” by authorities in Madrid. But a start-up is studying the possibility of using blockchain technology to let citizens hold their own vote, with no government authority needed.