It’s pretty easy for us to believe that slavery is over; a terrible thing that happened far in the past. But by some estimates, there are around 30 million slaves worldwide today - approximately ten times the amount there were in the United States in 1850.
A group of decentralists has put forth a proposal to leverage blockchains in the battle against child trafficking. Their proposal was tailored for Moldova, a country plagued by the loss of thousands of its adolescents. Located in the high-traffic crux between Asia and Europe, Moldova is a relatively destitute region. Only 7% of the victims are kidnapped; most follow promising job postings to nearby countries, where predators lay in wait.
The stakes are high: this system could reduce the number of teens, many without government issued ID, who are lured out of the Moldova to be placed into sexual slavery. The risks are also significant: without proper safeguards, this proposal may be the first instance of a nation-state using an immutable ledger to track and control the movements of its citizens.
The proposal calls for “at-risk” adolescents -- such as those who have been previously trafficked, or are in state custody -- to have their irises scanned. A hash of the scan is saved on a blockchain. Minors are scanned when they try to leave the country, and if it matches a value stored in the database, a text message is sent to the minor’s guardians. If ⅔ of the guardians approve the request, the minor is allowed past the border checkpoint.
A seemingly simple proposal, but there’s a lot to unpack here.
Moldova is widely considered the poorest country of Europe, and one of the biggest hotspots for human trafficking in the world. Many of its residents don’t have state-issued ID. (This is particularly true in Transnistrian, a region that claims autonomy but is only recognized by three other states.) Government agents have been implicated in child trafficking, and this problem is exacerbated by the common lack of ID, allowing people to be removed from their social context with little hope of making it back home.
According to the U.N., 230 million children worldwide under the age of five have never received state-issued ID. This lack of ID makes controlling trafficking problematic. Besides lack of access, state-issued ID has a plethora of other issues. They can be difficult to acquire, as anyone who has visited the Department of Motor Vehicles might attest. They can be revoked at the whim of a politician or bureaucrat, trapping political enemies (as in the case of Edward Snowden). Many of our identities today are not managed by governments, but instead by corporate behemoths such as Facebook and Google. Proponents of “self-sovereign identities” believe that an evolution is inevitable. Self sovereign IDs are powered by cryptography; only the owner has ultimate control over it, and eventually they can be ported from one platform to another.
Most projects focused on self-sovereign identity, such as uPort, assume that users will have a smartphone to manage their identity. Moldova has plenty of flip-phones, but smartphones haven’t yet gained widespread adoption. Because of this reality, iris scanners are proposed as a more viable solution.
Iris scans have great reliability and are difficult to fake. In the proposed solution, only a hash of the iris scan is saved on the blockchain. This hopefully dodges the invasive quality of biometrics: iris scans can easily become a hash, but a hash can’t be reversed to determine what a user’s eye looks like. On the other hand… all of this iris-scanning infrastructure may get put into place for an laudable goal, and then slowly be turned against the citizens. For instance, the government may start requiring all people to use the scanners rather than just adolescents. Furthermore, bad actors might even install backdoors into the iris scanning hardware that saves the full iris information, giving them a way to watch and control the movement of their populace. Legislation and oversight can minimize these risk of abuse inherent to biometrics, but cannot eliminate them.
This proposal was submitted by the non-profit Social Impact branch of Consensys, to a contest organized by the World Identity Network, in partnership with the Moldovan government. While NGOs may provide much of the resources needed to execute this proposal, its success ultimately depends on Moldovan legislation. You can check out the proposal here.
Rob Greenfield, the author of the proposal, answered some lingering questions:
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Why blockchain? Why not a private database with just hashes?
Public and state accountability - Moldovan government has had some missteps - multiple government agents have been indicted for their involvement in sex trafficking. [This system] could potentially find corrupt agents [in coordination with the blockchain and] video cameras at checkpoints.
If this proposal takes off, authentication will be required for minors attempting to leave Moldova. Could this potentially harm adolescents trying to leave abusive situations?
Yes. This is another policy question. Sometimes the parents are the ones selling their kids into the sex slave or human trafficking.
What are some risks with this system?
Governments could easily use state-sponsored machine learning algorithms to monitor public blockchain activity to gain insight on the lower level activity of their citizens if blockchain architects aren’t careful in the way they align transaction permissions and public/private state variables.
Self-sovereign identity isn’t a silver bullet, and if we don’t think about it/build it carefully, malicious actors could still capitalize on it as an element of control.
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Blockchain enthusiasts are convinced that decentralization technologies will disrupt inequalities. Uplifting people from poverty, and liberating citizens from dictatorships seems tantalizing possible through unstoppable blockchains. But without access to computers, the possibilities provided by ‘self sovereign’ technologies seem out of the reach of marginalized populations.
The adoption of blockchain technologies by governments may allow equitable, transparent societies to flourish. Just as possible, they may lock us in place, under the thumb of those who design and operate the systems.