In a grim case of societal Darwinism mixed with tragic irony, 147 million people struggle to protect their identities due to the Equifax breach (which recently added 2.4 million additional victims to its toll), while more than one billion people on the planet have no such luxury. In a newly released report, issued by the World Identity Network, in collaboration with the United Nations and other partners, Dr. Mariana Dahan, euphemistically the Satoshi Nakamoto of identity, Dr. Alicia Carmona and Dr. Brad Blitz, shed light on the dark recesses where the stateless and faceless struggle for the essentials of humanity – an identity. Without basic personhood, essential services, such as healthcare, education and political presence, along with safe passage through the world’s borders, consigns mostly women and children to the vile practice of human trafficking.
The report, Turning Invisible Children Into Invincible Ones, like its authors, is not content with being another sad statement of an intractable global problem, heavy on the heart but light on solutions. Instead, Dr. Dahan and her interdisciplinary team, call for a global competition to solve the identity challenge at scale in her home country of Moldova, the poorest in Europe. As with all lasting social innovations, entrepreneurs that are working on deeply personal problems can endure any array of setbacks and have infinite patience in achieving their goals. No stranger to the hardships of being a child without an identify, Dr. Dahan is leading a global call to action to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 of having 100% of the world’s population bestowed with the dignity of an identity at birth by 2030.
The numbers and challenges arrayed against this goal are staggering. More than one billion people today have no identity. That is 1 in 7 people on the planet do not have the luxury of worrying about ID theft, like so many of us who are Equifax’s collateral damage. This is a compounding figure by the more than 230 million children born into invisibility where their births are never recorded by no other cause than having lost the geographic lottery of life. Add to this list the stark reality that most of the world’s identity systems, including in advanced economies like the U.S., are in effect operating on analog, alphanumeric models that are centrally stored and deeply vulnerable to fast moving digital risks. This centralized analog vulnerability, combined with the massive rolls of forced migrants, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), totaling more than 257 million according to the report, sets the stage for a daunting task – one made all the more complex and urgent due to the growing prospect of climate change refugees and large-scale human displacement. Indeed, by this measure, even “fortress nations” like the U.S. are not spared, as climate-displaced people from Puerto Rico and coastal states move elsewhere in the country by the hundreds of thousands.
What is lost among these large numbers, but not in this important report, is that the world’s most vulnerable people, namely children, are particularly punished by the lack of universally acceptable and portable identities. 50 million children are in effect consigned to the margins of humanity, displaced from their home countries, left in the darkest shadows of exploitation and hopelessness. In the same way a country’s soul is measured by how it treats its children, elderly and veterans, the failure of the international community to resolve the identity challenge for children should weigh heavily on our hearts and consciousness. Mercifully, entrepreneurs, business, civic and political leaders are taking this call to action seriously.
While technology alone is not a panacea for an issue as complex, polarizing and societally difficult as identity, it can play a pivotal role in achieving SDG 16.9 and ending the tide of human trafficking – where women and children comprise 70% of the victims. The call to action in the report is to harness the substantial ambition in the blockchain community in architecting and prototyping an identity solution at scale. The benefits seem to outweigh the risks in some of the models highlighted, including proposals from Bitfury, Ixo Foundation and ConsenSys, which all render a similar vision where a distributed ledger is used to capture an immutable identity, tracking key changes (e.g. border entry and egress) over time.
As with proposals to cure communicable diseases that espouse the simplicity of washing hands presupposing the availability of running water. Bringing in cutting-edge technology solutions to the world’s frontiers, presupposes the availability of reliable and unfettered internet, electricity, authorities and custodians, especially for children. Critically, these items remain tragically scare and conspire to irrigate the root causes of the world’s identity crisis. Alas, any progress that narrows the billion-person identity gap, even if it is imperfect, should be taken and with great urgency. For challenges this critical, the world should not let perfect get in the way of good.
We are now living in a world rife with complex man-made risks. In this world, where cyber threats can fester for many years sowing distrust in our most venerable institutions, including democracy itself, the concept of building “fortress nations” where our neighbors’ plight is ignored is impossible and immoral. Indeed, Europe’s migration crisis, which is exacerbated in no small measure by stateless and desperate people who are exploited by human traffickers, slave and sex traders, is made worse by the lack of portable identities. 230 million children born into the margins of society, is quite literally a breeding ground for the worst of humanity, from child trafficking, sex slavery, open air human markets, terrorism and much more. A modern world with an embarrassment of riches concentrated in a few lucky hands cannot stand idly by while 1 in 7 of us lack the basic decency of being born with something to lose. May we all be so lucky to worry about the loss of something we take for granted.