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

By Wayan Vota on January 11, 2018

blockchain digital identity cards

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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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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34 Comments to “A Really Bad Blockchain Idea: Digital Identity Cards for Rohingya Refugees”

  1. James says:

    I’m at CES this week, very strange after working in ICT4D these last few years. Blockchain is being thrown around like mHealth was 5 or 6 years ago… No one seems to really understand it, but everyone wants in.

  2. Ben says:

    Thank you, Wayan – this is spot on: Stop the blockchain hype!

  3. K says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that blockchain for refugees is a bad idea. One quick point though about your Aadhaar reference.

    The data loss you reference is hotly contested by the agency that runs the Aadhaar digital identity system. It’s a hugely contentious issue in India right now. There have been other types of well-documented problems with the ID system, but I wouldn’t repeat as yet the Aadhaar data breach allegations as fact.

  4. Dan Jenkin says:

    On the other hand, articles like this may negatively spin a viable, positive technical approach, Blockchain… by aligning it to a really senseless application, Rohingya refugee tracking. Blockchain is past the hype, perhaps in a trough, but the future is bright for this technical approach.

  5. Andrew says:

    Possibly the worst Blockchain idea proposed yet. ‘Let’s just ledger people by refugee status and ethnicity in a permanent, government accessible and persistent way?’ Um, how about just no. How about just f**king no.

  6. Scott says:

    I think this is my favorite post you have done on ICTWorks… well done

  7. Fingers Crossed says:

    Block-Chain technology is simply a leveraging of software technology & pervasive network infrastructure that can build a distributed trust networks & and secure information repositories. It is also –in many ways–a technology that will be feared & perhaps misunderstood by many parts of the International Development community’s diverse stake holders. (eg governments of less developed nations, 1st world development professionals and their governments–and the clandestine services of same, I-NGO’s, private industry, non-profit industry, yes.. the list is long)

    But its important to recognize that Block-Chain, because of its fundamental nature, will be feared because its very much like any new technology tool that is disruptive.. simply.. it can be used for good or evil. Yes.. Its true.. block-chain– like any new disruptive technology– ends up being a reflection of the ethics & morals of those who in a position to use it..

    So yes.. this is the age old human challenge –and IMO no less than the fundamental challenge of our species if you think about it..

    We must to find ways to implement policies that govern the use of new & disruptive technologies that support clear benefits to “at risk” communities–and people in general- while minimizing negative outcomes (both intended & unintended) and that “bakes in” transparency & solid ethical governance that can always be held to account for their actions.

    Humanity is–if nothing else–always a work in progress. Here’s to hoping we can use the tools of this coming information age to move our species to a new level of transparency, and accountability.

  8. James says:

    When will “methodically designed interventions using proven technology with a clear plan for sustainability” be the new buzzword?

  9. Sam Lanfranco says:

    There are multiple problems with this proposal. The biggest is the history of the past 100 years with regard to bad outcomes from assigning ethnic identity cards to populations, or parts of populations, especially when there are social tensions (Caste in India, ethnicity in Rwanda, religion in Europe, etc.). This part of the proposal should be evaluated completely separately from the secondary idea of using blockchain as the underpinning technology.

    With regard to proposing the blockchain distributed ledger as the appropriate application technology, there are multiple reasons to question if it is the appropriate technology, even if there is an acceptable identify card strategy. As an economist I am watching blockchain being applied like MSG to Chinese cooking. Proponents, are attaching a blockchain label to everything from cybercurrencies to supply line accountability. Blockchain, tangle, ripple, Ethereum, IOTA, tokens, coins, offer a range of technologies and applications with strengths and weaknesses, and in many cases are being marketed like “snake oil” health products.

    Proponents are quick to dismiss critics by saying that they (we) do not understand this “disruptive” new technology, when in fact their proposals are frequently half-backed, ill-suited to the problem they identify, or simply designed to milk a speculative investor bubble. Claiming a lack of understanding is a cheap shot. So, put the major thinking into assessing the good and bad aspects of an ethnic identify card. If the “WHAT” and “WHY” are bad ideas, we do not have to explore the “HOW”.

    Much of what is happening in the distributed ledger (and forks) area is about technology solutions looking for problems. Ethnic identity cards is not an appropriate application. Lastly, making a list of all the other things the blockchain supported application can do, is not support if the primary use of the application is flawed. Ask yourself, how eager are you to be assigned an identity card (to be produced to whom and in what situations?) that details your ancestry and ethnicity?

  10. Rahul says:

    Very interesting issue you raise here. While I’m not in favor of ‘a project’ trying to *solve* such a complex issue in this manner, a couple of questions arose to your assessment:

    1. I get the skepticism around experimental technology and projects leaving the vulnerable more exposed than they are, and the keywords Blockchain + Rohingya seem like a great fund-raising attempt — but haven’t we established global consensus over addressing concerns on digitization via “enforce policy + ethics” / “ensure privacy + security” / “transparency gives accountability” rather than “don’t digitize?”

    2. For folks with an identity crisis facing mass atrocity, isn’t going away from a paper (that can be hidden / destroyed) a way to establish permanent support and inclusion / existence, rather than fear that data going to perpetrators or persecutors?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      1. I wish there was global consensus on data collection and storage – for anyone, including refugees. There is a growing body of digital privacy work that can held guide organizations to better practices. Until then, data is both an asset and a liability to those that give and receive it.

      2. To go away from paper or not as identity cards is a good question. We are still sorting that out with efforts like Aadhaar and the US’s Read ID process, both which use mostly known technologies with stable populations. To make a leap from paper to digital to blockchain in one breath, and then experiment with it on refugees is two steps to far for me.

      • Sam Lanfranco says:

        It is crucial to separate out what is a good idea here, and for a good idea how to do it. There is little evidence that the blockchain technology is an appropriate technology here, but that is really a secondary issue. The key issue is that a refugee is a citizen (somewhere, usually) in crisis. One way of looking at it is to ask a two-level question. What unique global identifier should a person have, or should they have one? This is being struggled over in India now. For a refugee what additional information (even if the first information) should be digitally attached to the refugee?
        There are two associated questions. The first is about refugees: Why is the world doing so badly in dealing with them? That has little to do with individual identity documents and more about how the world elects to address the causes and consequences of internal and external refugee migration. (I will hold my comments about IOM here, and about the level of global commitment to the causes and plight of refugees).
        The other question is a broader one. With the advent of the global Internet every person, and every entity, has residency (as digital data, plus trails of digital activity) and is a subject within the Internet ecosystem. What rights and duties do those subjects have as global digital citizens? One’s data can be stored on server farms all over the globe, and tracked by various commercial and governmental interests. One is now a resident at birth, with or without use of a digital device. The Internet of Things will amplify this presence.
        Our existing residency rights and obligations in data protection/access regimes that have been set by others (e.g. EU GDRP). Data pertaining to refugees is just a special case of this bigger issue. Beyond that, what engagement do persons (as citizens) and entities (with corporate digital citizenship?) have in setting policies about those rights and duties? Most of what exists, now usually in terms of privacy protection, has been set by Internet governance policies established in a top-down policy model.
        One avenue forward here, and the one I am working on (with others) is putting some flesh on the bones of the notion of global digital citizenship. Most of what has been done to date on “digital citizenship” has treated the Internet ecosystem as “over there” and treats the person as a visitor who is advised to exhibit good etiquette and safe behavior. Nope, we are residents in the Internet ecosystem and when it comes to our data (refugees or not) we must start from notions of our rights and duties, and not ideas about which technologies to use.

  11. I am Muhammad Noor, I am a Rohingya and Co-founder of the Rohingya Project. I have also previously spent years working on various projects related to the development of the Rohingya community, including setting up the largest Rohingya broadcast TV station, setting up the first Rohingya Football Club and working to Unicode the Rohingya language for the first time.

    We recently came across your article titled ‘A Really Bad Blockchain Idea: Digital Identity Cards for Rohingya Refugees’. While your article does raise important concerns, it is unfortunate you did not reach out to our Project prior to its publishing as we could have pointed out several factual errors and areas for clarification, which may have better served your reader.

    We would like to raise your attention to the following issues with the article:

    First, you mentioned that the Rohingya Project is associated with the organization Restless Beings, whereas in fact we are not and this has been misreported. [Editor’s Note – reference now removed in the original post]

    Secondly, you have framed our Project as geared towards addressing Rohingya refugees exclusively, whereas in fact our Project is dealing with the financial inclusion of Rohingya diaspora as stateless people. This distinction is important. While the world is focused on the plight of the Rohingya refugees escaping from persecution over the past several months, statelessness is the condition in which the Rohingya have been for over thirty years. A Rohingya can technically not be considered a refugee yet still be stateless.
    Disowned by their own state, the vast majority of stateless Rohingya have no official identity and remain undocumented, and by definition, socially and financially excluded. Is it to this long term problem that our project is geared towards.

    Thirdly, in terms of the validity of ethnic registration, please remember that the Rohingya are not a race or nationality. Their identity at this point is as an ethnic group only. Our registration system is based on a rigorous testing based on the ethnic metrics you mentioned in your article that only a Rohingya is designed to pass. A more simplified model of this test has already been used for over a decade by the UNHCR for registering the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia which I assisted in developing. I would be happy to inform you more about the process should you require additional information. Please also keep in mind that the Rohingya in Bangladesh recently rejected the ID proposed by the Bangladeshi government for its omission of the ‘Rohingya’ classification.

    Fourthly, your point about whether this digital identity should be created in the first place overlooks the tremendous ordeal the Rohingya face currently in their undocumented state. Without a verified ID, the Rohingya find even access to basic services such as healthcare, travel and finance very difficult. Most Rohingya are unable to even prove legally with documentation that their son or daughter is the actual child. Without identification, it does not lessen the persecution they face but only makes them more vulnerable to marginalization, trafficking and other problems.

    Fifthly, while your points on the need to prevent data leakage/loss and ensure digital privacy are well taken, you have assumed that our Rohingya Project has not taken these considerations into account. As we develop our pilot ID system in the coming months, we intend to publish further information concerning how we will ensure the privacy rights of each individual Rohingya will be respected and data will remain secure. The advantage of Blockchain as a decentralized ledger is that is less prone to the cases of hacking and data loss as in the examples you mentioned.

    Lastly, while your article has focused heavily on the digital ID component of the Rohingya Project, you have neglected to mention that this ID system is meant primarily as a key to a virtual platform to give Rohingya access to a range of financial applications, such as microfinancing and peer-to-peer lending, all intended to bolster collaboration within the Rohingya community and support real projects on the ground. We are working to find a way past the current scenario for the Rohingya with our dependency on humanitarian assistance and aid to a more sustainable future.

    In your article, you give the reader an impression that the Rohingya Project wants to use blockchain as a way to merely generate attention and headlines. On the contrary, this Project proposes a potential solution to the issue of statelessness that has been lingering for over 70 years. We understand that this is a huge undertaking and are under no illusions that it will require international collaboration with many different stakeholders. But we need to take these steps now, while the world momentarily is focused on the Rohingya, for us to build a foundation for the future. We cannot afford to wait as we have been waiting in the past for others to solve our problems.

    Please note that this message was intended in good faith. In the spirit of fairness, we kindly request you to also publish this on your website for the further understanding of your readers. We also hope to hear back from you and continue to discuss critical points you have raised.

    • Sam Lanfranco says:

      As one of the commentators on the original article I want to thank Muhammad Noor for his thoughtful comments that help frame the context for the need to address the challenges the Rohingya face currently in their undocumented state. Having travelled with Karen refugees I have seen the problems of lack of documents. As an economist I am intensely aware that efforts at socio-economic betterment require the existence of viable documentation. Internal or external refugees are subjects, and not citizens. As such they are governed/managed by policies where they have little input and few if any rights.
      I remain unsure which digital platform (blockchain, Ethereum, etc), or other similar technology, is the right digital platform to underpin the effort. I and hope that the Project carries on an open dialogue to engage help and advice from the concerned global community.

      • Sam Lanfranco says:

        Correction: Internal refugees usually, but not always, have citizenship but as displaced persons their citizenship rights are frequently seriously curtained.

    • Linda says:

      Hi Muhammed, I thank you for your thorough comments and the thoughtful way you’ve addressed the criticism to the project. It was me who first posted the article about the project on my Facebook page and there was quite a discussion with lots of questions and concerns.

      Most of our information about the project came from a short article which did not go in depth into how the project would be implemented. The question that I posed on Facebook was: Can I see the risk-benefits-harms analysis that’s been done on this one? http://techwireasia.com/2017/12/humanitarian-group-uses-blockchain-tech-give-rohingyas-digital-id-cards/.

      I do believe that part of the issue was the way the project was reported by the news agency, which did not provide very much background information or detail, but that is not your fault, obviously. I also know that many of us working in the development sector are concerned about our sector’s historically poor capacity to protect data and the tendency to jump on the “next big thing” as a way to get funding. That is where many of our concerns came from.

      There are real issues with privacy in any digital data project, especially when its capturing data of vulnerable people, so I would still have concerns about this one (and any one). But I do believe that we should have gotten in touch to ask you directly about the project, (as our friend Lina suggested) since you have a website. I apologize that no one contacted you before making assumptions. The questions listed above in the comments cover most of the concerns that people had when they read the article on my Facebook page, and many of those you have clarified.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments!

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Thank you for respond to my post. I appreciate your effort to clarify your efforts.

      – You have framed our Project as geared towards addressing Rohingya refugees exclusively.

      Your website makes it clear that you are including refugee populations in your project. This is to me is the main issue. Refugees, by the fact of their refugee status, are not in the position to objectively accept or reject someone’s experiment. Some may, of course, yet the majority will be vulnerable to the massive power imbalance of being homeless, potentially penniless, and needing immediate assistance. To experiment on them isn’t ethical. To experiment on them with experimental technology is even worse.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      – Please remember that the Rohingya are not a race or nationality. Their identity at this point is as an ethnic group only.

      Correct. Ethic grouping is a completely subjective classification system. As such, who is to say who is a “Rohingya refugee” or even Rohingya diaspora? You want to use your own proprietary identification criteria, while UNHCR uses a simple, publicly vetted system to judge refugee status, then lets Muslims self-identify as Rohingya.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      – Without a verified ID, the Rohingya find even access to basic services such as healthcare, travel and finance very difficult.

      Your digital ID will not magically create access to government services. For that, we need to change government systems to include all their residents in their processes. This is the only real long-term solution. Might it be better to work with the World Bank’s Identity for Development program that includes government and digital IDs that develop your own adhoc ID cards that will not be recognized by an sovereign nation?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      – The advantage of Blockchain as a decentralized ledger is that is less prone to the cases of hacking and data loss as in the examples you mentioned.

      So far… yet in the history of digital data, there isn’t a single secure data system, partially because every data system is touched by humans, and as imperfect beings, we produce imperfect systems. That means the best way to keep Rohingya data secure is not to digitize it. I know, old-fashioned paper is not as sexy as blockchain, but in this case it could be much more effective. Or if you must digitize, why not help UNHCR with their already-established refugee data collection and management processes. They sure have much greater resources than your project to design, build, and test data security systems.

      • Tey says:

        “That means the best way to keep Rohingya data secure is not to digitize it. I know, an old-fashioned paper is not as sexy as blockchain, but in this case, it could be much more effective. Or if you must digitize, why not help UNHCR with their already-established refugee data collection and management processes. They sure have much greater resources than your project to design, build, and test data security systems.”

        Blockchain allows us to check the existence of Identities 24/7 without referring to the issuer, something the paper IDs and centralized systems fail to do.
        Blockchain being Immutable, Borderless, Open, Neutral, and Decentralised makes it better than UNHCR and all the UN initiatives combined. The resources behind Blockchain in terms of developers, designers, and money are pushing advancements to help everyone and not only refugees.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      – This digital ID system is meant primarily as a key to a virtual platform to give Rohingya access to a range of financial applications.

      Please tell me the step-by-step process that leads from homeless, penniless Rohingya refugee just forced out of Rakhine State accessing microfinance and peer-to-peer lending. Both assume refugees have income-earning potential, the social capital to attract financing, and the ability to combine both with business acumen and excited customers to create viable businesses. None of that is common in refugee camps.

  12. Saqib Sheikh says:

    Hi everyone,

    I am Saqib Sheikh, Project Director for the Rohingya Project and colleague of Mr Noor who posted earlier.

    We are aware that at this early stage in the Project, many questions will be raised and we hope to be transparent and open to constructive feedback. We are taking a step-by-step, measured approach and trying to communicate on the project goals with as many stakeholders as possible. We do not expect everyone to necessarily agree with our approach or have no concerns whatsoever, but we will try to engage with critics and also see if there is some positive input we can use as move along.

    I would just like to add that using blockchain with refugees (or in our case, stateless people) is being done by several parties already. Microsoft and Accenture have launched the ID2020 project for example (http://fortune.com/2017/06/19/id2020-blockchain-microsoft/).

    Obviously, this article was a concern for us as it seemed to diminish our endeavor without providing the necessary context for the reader to be properly informed. It would be great if the editor can just include a short note at the end of the article mentioning that the Co-Founder has provided his official response in the Comments section so the reader can have both sides of the story.

    We hope to keep the conversation going and thank you for your useful comments.


  13. duckrabbit says:

    Good post

    ‘Sadly, the Rohingya Project will not be the first to do this.’

    I think you meant ‘will not be the LAST to do this’.

  14. Kirt says:

    I rather share Wayan’s concerns. I think this is a deeply problematic effort, largely because of that fact that amongst those displaced not all even identify with the Rohingya identity; as like any ethnicity, the Rohingya identity is a political project, and some of those displaced don’t share in that project’s aims or vision.

    Some of these folks prefer to be considered Arakanese Muslims, for example. Now while that number may not be large, it raises the question of how to handle those who have been displaced who aren’t aligned with the Rohingya identity. And that’s just one issue.

  15. Syed says:

    When it comes to using Blockchain for personally identifiable information (PII), we need to be cautious as everything is still in a proof of concept stage, by design.

  16. Jay says:

    Who the hell are Rohingya Project to determine and verify ethnicity? Are you sure that putting a highly persecuted people’s biometric information in a public ledger is a good idea? Why experiment on the powerless?

  17. Sam Lanfranco says:

    The human desire to be helpful is as old as humans. So is the persistent failure to learn (especially from the experiences of others). The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are but two of a long list of agencies who have wrestled with two key issues facing displaced persons. The one is viable identity papers, and the other is access to gainful employment. Any effort, by anyone, in these areas should be consulting far and wide to capture lessons learned, source relevant expertise, and -not the least- figure out how to give agency to those one wishes to help.

    Oh! A third issue is the tendency to throw technology into the mix without a proper assessment of context and prospects. Those who fought against the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) or many of the ill-designed micro-credit schemes (e.g., the African Millennium Villages Project) were usually correct in their assessment, and were almost always marginalized as funding went into knowingly flawed projects where the only benefits went to those hired by the project, or contracted to supply inputs.

    Sometimes state-of-the-art technology is appropriate (I recently looked at the Zipline drone based blood supply project in Rwanda) and sometimes it is not. Under what conditions can a micro-credit facility help displaced persons in a temporary refugee setting?

    For me the test of possible viability rests on two considerations: 1. How does it incorporate verified lessons learned from elsewhere? 2. How are the potential recipients given agency to participate in the design and operation of the project, increasing its chances of being suited to the “on-the-ground” context?

  18. Ed Gaible says:

    Hi all, I’m not an expert in any of this, but it might be helpful to apply a kind of Occam’s Razorish analysis to the idea. As Wayan points out in his original post, this idea is to use secure digital ID to connect a certain group of people to services. But isn’t our original problem that these people are suffering near-genocidal atrocities as a result of the (scientifically unsupported) application of “ethnic” labels? So the proposal is to recognize these labels digitallty and securely? Security and privacy issues, and the Blockchain, are beside the point. Shouldn’t we be promoting a post-ethnic/post-label reality? Desperately, fervently and without compromise? The proposed idea at its simplest reinforces the original error — I believe this was part of Wayan’s point, but it’s easy to lose sight of it in the rush to pile on and/or defend the Blockchain. (And, as a double benefit, we get to sort of blame Facebook for the false attribution to the Rohingya Project. How cool is that?)

    In any event, here’s a link to a really well-researched and well-considered report on mobile-phone use among refugee children in South Asia, “Protecting children on the move in Asia through ICT and social media,” by Philip Thorpe and Ratirose Supaporn (https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/library/protecting-children-move-asia-through-information-and-communication-technology-ict-and). The study show a really high level of access to and use of smart phones by refugee kids.

    It also shows — and I’m not an anthropologist by a looong stretch — that there’s a strong sense of group identify based on family, friends and networks that predate migration. It’s readable. And it’ll take you by surprise.

  19. Hi folks

    I very much welcome the spirit of respectful debate and discussion throughout most of the comments here, and am grateful for the project team’s responses.

    I share the concerns of many about the appropriateness of blockchain and this project from a data security and privacy point of view although I recognize that the team have responded on those points. However, I wanted to highlight another issue that a couple of people raised: what’s the theory of change here?

    This might also be phrased as a problem statement to which a specifically blockchain-powered solution is the answer. For example, such a problem statement might be: digital identity records keep getting changed, or there is a high risk of the records we create being changed, so we need to have a record in lots of places to help stop that happening.

    From what I’ve understood, the problem statement the project team is responding to is something like: ‘no digital identity exists for this group, so we want to create a system that records one.’ This problem statement is a bit different and doesn’t immediately point to a distributed ledger as a solution.

    Blockchain also does not seem to me to solve some of the challenges around data privacy and security that others have raised – it just distributes the problem (quite literally).

    I’m new at all this blockchain stuff so looking forward to understanding the thinking here a bit better.


  20. Johannes says:

    I have to say, the call to “Stop the Blockchain Hype” seems a bit silly. Hypes are like the weather, they just happen and then go away, leaving good and bad side effects in their wake. No one needs to try to control them, by stopping them, or accelerating them. The standard hype cycle is just a given, any new technology will go through it, and asking to resist its natural course is as silly as asking to stop the weather from happening.

    Wayan, I’m particurlarly stunned your position in the recent DeveX article that “We don’t have ironclad uses for blockchain that anybody is using at scale, and there’s a lot of worry that we’re experimenting with something we don’t really understand”. Of course there are no ironclad uses yet, because we are still exploring the technology. The whole point of experimenting is to understand better what we are dealing with, and to identify possible uses.
    You of course have a very fair point to ask whether we should experiment on a population as vulnerable as the Rohingya, who likely have little agency to say no to such an initiative. Also the fact that there is a long history of bad outcomes from assigning ethnic identity cards to populations is a key issue in my view.

    That having said, Muhammad’s response is very thoughtful, and points out one important fact: He started this project from an understanding of the plight of refugee populations. He can’t wait until we “change the mindset of the persecutors and stop the persecution” as you somewhat naively suggest. If proving identify is an issue for Rohingya, they have to explore ways to address that right now. Identify is certainly one of the most promising use cases for Blockchain. So yes, in my view it makes sense to experiment with Blockchain for this purpose, keeping in mind the pitfalls (privacy, data security, agency, etc.) and doing everything possible to mitigate collateral damage.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I am not going to stand idly by when someone decides to experiment on vulnerable populations with experimental technology. It is our moral duty as ICT4D professionals to call out our peers when they go beyond our norms and principles.

      Yes, we should experiment with blockchain. Yes, ID systems should be available to everyone. No, we should not experiment on the vulnerable with blockchain digital IDs.