Microsoft Among Those Pitching Blockchain at U.N. Summit To End Identity Crisis
Leading and emerging technology providers, human rights activists and U.N. ambassadors from around the world gathered Friday for the inaugural ID2020 Summit to kick off a major and non-trivial effort of developing a technical, organizational and political framework that would ultimately ensure everyone in the world has a trusted digital identity. It's a significant undertaking considering 1.5 billion people, 20 percent of the world's population, don't have any form of identity today, subjecting them to exploitation, human trafficking and depriving them of any rights because they have no provable or traceable form of identification.
I attended the inaugural "ID2020 Summit -- Harnessing Digital Identity for the Global Community," held at the United Nations headquarters in its Trusteeship Council Chamber with 100-plus tech companies and business leaders appearing. The U.N. is participating in the project because it has determined it fits in with one of its key 17 Sustainable Development Goals (STG) outlined last fall. STG 16, which seeks to create a global knowledge platform, aims to ensure everyone is given a globally accepted digital identity by 2030. Microsoft and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) were the primary sponsors of the ID2020 event, though representatives of standards bodies of all sizes also are contributors including Cisco, the Depository Trust Clearing Corp. (DTCC), the International Telecommunications Union, the Open Identity Exchange (OIX) and OASIS. Joined by U.N. ambassadors, humanitarian leaders and others, the goal was to lay the groundwork for what will be a long process of aiming to solve the global identity crisis. It's a crisis because those with no identity are subject to human trafficking -- particularly women who are captured by sex traffickers. Not having an identity also affects migrant workers and those living in underdeveloped parts of the world who are denied access to health care, education and voting rights, among other things.
A growing undercurrent of technology providers and businesses are becoming bullish that Blockchain -- the technology that enables anonymous Bitcoin transactions -- could solve many issues in handling transactions and also believe it could be a key ingredient in providing an interoperable identity framework. Leading financial services firms are looking at Blockchain, described simply as a distributed ledger with digitally recorded data in packages called blocks that are unchangeable and verifiable. Many experts are exploring Blockchain's ability to offer a verifiable identity.
There's no lack of identity frameworks in the developed world. On the commercial side, people have Social Security numbers, Facebook accounts, Google IDs and Microsoft Accounts that offer some level of interconnectivity via recognized legal and technical standards. There are various emerging Blockchain frameworks, which simply are distributed repositories that offer electronic stamps that can't be changed. Because they are proprietary and formative, they support various forms of authentication, oftentimes biometrics. In financial services, transactions are timestamped and don't require entities to have a relationship.
John Farmer, director of technology and civic innovation at Microsoft, pointed to three key benefits of Blockchain: It's immutable, meaning data and points of time can't be altered; it has a trustless nature, meaning that parties don't have to know each other yet they can have faith the Blockchain is accurate; and it's a transparent agreed-upon network.
"In terms of Blockchain in particular, we think it is great because of its potential to empower people," Farmer said. "This fits so well with Microsoft's own mission statement."
Nevertheless, Blockchain is still an emerging technology, and there's no standard way to interconnect proprietary networks, nor a global political and legal framework surrounding them. "When I see Blockchain, I see something that's in that it's early days," Farmer said. "I look at this akin to where the Web may have been in the early 1990s, and at the same time, a lot of us see the potential of where it can be. It's simply going to take some work to get from here to there."
Scott David, director of policy at the University of Washington Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity and a principal consulting analyst at TechVision Research, believes Blockchain has potential to solve the problems the ID2020 forum is hoping to someday solve.
"The way the technology works in there is the Blockchain has the potential as a computational sovereign that can help you address problems that are trans-jurisdictional such as identity to migrating population," David said. "It can also help the weighting of multiple NGOs' [non-governmental organizations] trust frameworks for interoperability."
ID2020 Focus on Universal Identity
Indeed, many leading providers of Blockchain technology at ID2020 talked up Blockchain as an underlying technology to achieve these goals. ID2020 Founder John Edge, also a proponent of Blockchain, said last week's event was not about selling the technology to the U.N.
"ID2020 is a hub for gathering the world's innovative technologies to the United Nations and other organizations who would benefit potentially from discovering this technology," Edge said at a brief press conference during the event. "It definitively is not recommending that technology. This is the start of a 15-year ambition. We have a lot to figure out." Edge said the intent is to spend the next five years determining whether it can move forward with rolling out an identity framework by 2030.
While attendees were all in agreement that the key priority is saving hundreds of millions of people --especially young girls -- from a life of exploitation and in many cases captivity, many attendees were there to discuss, or learn about how Blockchain might play a role in that. The technology is starting to get strong attention in the financial world as well and has been endorsed by the likes of The World Bank and Citigroup, among others.
Microsoft's Blockchain Efforts
For its part, Microsoft has been following the technology for some time, and in November announced its plan to deliver on the technology when it teamed with ConsenSys to offer Ethereum Blockchain as a Service (EBaaS) on Azure, aimed at providing a single-click, cloud-based Blockchain developer environment.
While not organizers of last week's event, Microsoft and PWC were the major sponsors and had a strong presence. Avoiding the appearance of pushing Blockchain as the answer, officials from both companies nevertheless didn't hide that they are strong proponents of it.
"This notion of establishing a secure identity for not just individuals but everything," said Marley Gray, director of business development and cloud enterprise at Microsoft. "Being able to track and be able to transact and secure identity is one of those key enablers to allow you to flow through these different technology innovations. The challenge is not necessarily the technology, or the organization -- it's bringing them all together. And that's only going to be done through these partnerships. At Microsoft we do have a lot of identity solutions in the enterprise, we also have a huge footprint across the consumer. In the enterprise space, we do think Blockchain technology is a part of the solution. Will it be the solution? We don't know. We think there's some good ideas there we can use to evolve this partnership, that's the main reason we are here. It's to try to help raise the tide, lift all boats including those in underdeveloped markets, the unbanked and the underserved."
In his post back in November, Gray indicated why he is a proponent of Blockchain. "The Blockchain is a time-stamped, non-repudiable database that contains the entire logged history of the system," he noted. "Each transaction processor on the system maintains their own local copy of this database and the consensus formation algorithms enable every copy to stay in sync."
At last month's Envision conference, Microsoft announced it is working with R3, a consortium of 40 large financial services companies to test Blockchain technologies.
Is Blockchain the Solution?
Skeptics warn not to look at Blockchain as the entire answer to this identity management dilemma. David Crocker, who was at the forefront of pushing forward early Internet working protocols, was at the ID2020 event. Asked if he believes Blockchain is the future of identity management, Crocker said: "It absolutely is not. Now that I said that, I didn't say it's useless. I said it's not the solution. There is no solution. There are components of technology that are useful, Blockchain is clearly one of them. But you don't build a system out of a component of technology -- you build them out of a bunch of components. And more importantly you build it out of a system design, and that system design has to look at the usage scenarios, and in large-sale system design."
Clearly it will be no easy task for the U.N. and the ID2020 organization pull off its goals. Experts agreed there are many technical, economic and political issues that could pose barriers. But given the societal impact it could have, many believe the stakeholders will find a solution. TechVision's Scott David, who is also a former partner with K&L Gates (formerly Preston, Gates & Ellis), said in an interview that the event helped set the stage to move forward.
"What we had here was this dynamic stable state, you have governments and companies with creative tensions between them, that's where the answers are," David said. "There isn't an answer either/or. There's not going to be some new substitutes for existing institutions, it will be a synthesis of these things. That's why I said it's very satisfactory. This was like a first date in this context of those organization."
ID2020 Moving Forward
David was encouraged by the support from Microsoft, Cisco and others. "As corporations have gotten more powerful, and countries have gotten not diminished power but there are new powers in town, it's heartening to see corporations finding ways to get involved in initiatives like this," he said. "We don't know which one is going to be a winner, but at least there's energy -- that kind of funding and resource and attention that's going to be important."
One thing everyone at ID2020 agreed upon is that there's a common desire to move forward, but no one knows what the political, organizational and technical frameworks will look like. But the wheels are in motion for this to be hashed out for the coming years. If such a framework evolves, it'll have huge benefits to commerce but, more importantly, it will give 1.5 billion people throughout the world rights they never had, and for millions it will save them from inhumane exploitation -- or sadly for millions a life of slavery with no identity to ever save them. If ID2020 can't bring everyone together, it's unlikely anything else will.
Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 05/25/2016 at 1:18 PM