In the aftermath of the implementation of QR-codes for COVID-passports, governments are, after big tech lobbying, pursuing the digitalization of society by opting for digital IDs based on blockchain technology (a heavily secured system which is almost fully resistant to hack-attacks, and thereby un-opensourcable. Digital IDs are in itself not a bad thing, but the far-reaching capabilities of such a system should be a red flag and spark some reconsideration on whether we want all our data to be stored for eternity, out of reach and indelible.
Two weeks ago, independent research journal Follow the Money reported about the implementation of eIDs being implemented in our societies. CEOs of biometric companies like iProov – developers of the British Covid-App – have said our COVID passports to be a steppingstone to a digitalization of our health data and identities. They are not alone in supporting this as big tech companies are both heavily active supporters of COVID-passport systems and digital ID’s. Facial recognition technology – iProov’s main expertise – paired to blockchain systems could link precisely measured data (iris-scans, fingerprints etc.) to one’s identity and store it forever, so that ‘the right services are given to the right person’. Although one could argue that this is so for the simple fact of these companies and governments believing this to help us get out of this crisis and counter identity fraud, tech and rights specialists warn for a less innocent side of the agenda behind digital IDs.
Digital identity system Aadhaar, paired to a digital wallet run by Mastercard, has been implemented in India in 2009. Critics warn for system flaws resulting in inaccessible banking accounts. The same companies and NPOs involved in the implementation of Aadhaar are now lobbying for global usage of COVID-passports and eIDs. Among others is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as Gates has frequently stated to be a big supporter of Aadhaar. Designer of Aadhaar Nandan Nilekani is currently advisor within a project supervised by the World Bank and financed by eBay-founder Pierre Omidyar, Bill Gates and various governments. As the world bank has had a great influence on the WHO’s guidelines for how to implement COVID-passports – 13 members of the Bank were thanked for their advices – the influence of these actors in our contemporary (and potentially) future societies is great. The way these actors interconnect shows the topdown way decisions about digitalization of our societies are made. Aadhaar’s system has been flawed, as Gates’ flagship has caused an early death for Premani Kunwar, dying after her retirement pension was placed on someone else’s banking account.
Lobbying Big Tech
In 2018, ID2020 (prominent lobbyist for eIDs) claimed that vaccination campaigns could be a great gateway towards digitalizing identities. The ethical complications of COVID-passports are omnipresent, as various governments are talking about forced vaccinations (with risking fees or even prison sentences when not vaccinating) while QR-codes are necessary to make use of various cultural institutes or to take part in social activities. Although we are dealing with a heavy pandemic, we might want to reconsider actively locking out societal groups that are concerned about the vaccine or their freedom. One could imagine that this trend of restricting people who do not behave in line with governmental interests could, in combination with digital IDs capable of storing indelible data comprising of one’s health, physical appearance, spending behaviour or remarks made on the internet, one’s anonymity and individual freedom could potentially be violated strongly.
The great thing about governments is that (in our European cases) they can be voted away. The risk of eID-lobbyists however is that they are strongly affiliated with big tech companies, as for example Facebook and Mastercard have joined ID2020. Combine their participation to the eID systems, their control of social data flow (WhatsApp or Facebook) and their huge political agency (read: Cambridge Analytics Scandal) and all of a sudden one’s anonymity is close to disappeared. Although our current governments are not really showing signs of heavily restricting dissenters (apart from non-vaccinated civilians), risks are that the eID-technologies and data might one day not only fall into the hands of a tiny big tech-elite, but also of an oppressive government. The power such a government could exert, would be at the least frightening and threatening to individual freedom.
In our increasingly surveilled societies, the last thing we want is for our data to be permanently stored in an untransparent way. Luckily, our European AVG-privacy law dictates that any personal data not of use anymore or when one does not grant his/her permission for its use, it should be deleted. This is a core fundament of our digital privacy right. Although tests have been done with, transparent, opensource eID systems which allow for deleting personal data, the systems that are opted for currently rely on Blockchain, a decentral system in which, when data is stored, it cannot be deleted anymore. When this is centralized, it forms an unchangeable social contract between people and ruler, which takes away the fundament beneath our democracy. A VN-author has warned for the big public implementation of storing data in a blockchain system setting an unchangeable power disbalance while Harvard-scholar Elizabeth Renieris has resigned at ID2020 due to not wanting to contribute to a service ‘which serves corporate interests and ignores human rights’.
By the implementation of blockchained eIDs accessible to a centralized power we risk losing a great deal of anonymity and individual freedom. This could heavily damage or democracies, while corporate interests of a tiny tech-elite would be met. It seems that big tech are not wasting this good crisis, and might implement a system which immensely reshapes the social contract underlying the protection of our human rights. Although we are dealing with a big health crisis right now, it is of vital importance to remain critical about the systems that are implemented in the wake of the pandemic. If we are not critical towards the way the pandemic is handled, we might risk permanently losing individual freedom.
Jannes van Roermund, Catherine Riva, and Serena Tinari, “Wetenschappers Waarschuwen Voor Een Nieuwe Digitale Identiteit,” Follow the Money – Platform voor onderzoeksjournalistiek, December 11, 2021, https://www.ftm.nl/artikelen/internationale-digid-lobby?share=QXi%2Fc4enAKo6Fsy7l4GmSfD%2BwpBlqskHSTrAUZZbB3t3X7S9F8B8XlqZ%2BZN7Ynk%3D.