Can blockchain transform ID?

Accenture and Microsoft are teaming up on a plan to use biometric markers in a blockchain platform to verify identity for displaced persons who may lack official documentation.

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Blockchain is increasingly getting attention as a way to manage and verify data for governments and large institutions. While best known as the code underpinning the virtual currency Bitcoin, blockchain software can be used to collect, distribute and verify data transactions of all kinds.

Accenture and Microsoft are teaming up on a blockchain-based solution to create digital identity as a means to offer personal documentation for refugees. The effort is one part of a United Nations-based program called ID2020 that is aimed at solving the problem of lack of verifiable ID for some 1.1 billion people worldwide.

The effort, which uses fingerprint and iris biometric data, is intended to scale up from its present base of about 1.5 million digital IDs, said Marty Rodgers, managing director of Accenture's Washington office. The system runs on Microsoft's Azure cloud. Both firms are donating resources for the effort.

Accenture's Unique Identity Service Platform currently supports a system used by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has data on 1.3 million refugees in 29 countries worldwide, according to an Accenture release.

This new form of identification offers a layer of privacy protection in addition to built-in cryptography, Rodgers said. The prior consent of an individual is required each and every time that individual is identified, which protects privacy and empowers the individual. Each "individual will have capability to decide to who has access to that identity," he noted. Personally identifiable information is stored "off chain," according to Accenture.

Still, blockchain technology, with its emphasis on transparency and distributed storage, might not be a perfect fit for data on vulnerable individuals who could be targets for persecution, said Jeremy Grant, formerly the head of the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, an office at the Department of Commerce.

"For any blockchain identity application, how will access to personal information be governed -- will access be available to anybody, or it will be restricted?" said Grant, now managing director of technology and business strategy at Venable, in an email to FCW. "And if it is restricted, how do you ensure that the access system can’t be breached -- allowing the data to fall into the wrong hands?"

The Accenture platform "aligns to the principles of the Decentralized Identity Foundation," an organization that includes Microsoft, and also uses a "permissioned" blockchain protocol, according to the release.

Verifiable identification, especially in parts of the world where government is fragmented or non-existent, has been a key driver of migration policies, including in the United States. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told Congress in February that he was "at a total loss to understand how we can vet people from various countries when in at least four of those countries we don’t even have embassies."

These problems have been cited in support of the Trump administration's restrictive travel policies, which includes outright U.S. entry bans on individuals with passports from or travel histories involving certain countries.

While there's no direct link to U.S. policy, the new global initiative could set a standard for establishing the integrity of digital identity, said Rodgers.

"We are all about changing the way the world works," said Rodgers, who observed that individuals without identification are marginalized by modern society.