Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.
There are around 1.5bn people across the world who have no way of proving who they are, according to the United Nations.
The UN believes this a such a profound problem that addressing the issue became one of last year’s 169 targets that make up the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Right now, the UN is convened in its New York HQ with industry, government, NGOs and tech folks for the first of 15 annual meetings to work on this exact challenge.
They’ve been brought together by one man, essentially, John Edge, who’s now chairman of nonprofit ID2020 that will be used as the focus for getting the job done.
“Without legal identification people are invisible to society and vulnerable to trafficking, prostitution and child abuse,” ID2020 explains.
Already, its mission is pretty clear. By 2020, create a legal digital identity for every person without identification. If all goes well, by 2030, it’ll roll out to at least 1bn at risk people.
Now they are working out the how. No pressure.
Edge doesn’t sound like your typical world leader, not least because he’s from the North of England and still carries a certain twang.
An engineer by training, he worked as trader for JP Morgan, getting out just before the good times turned bad in order to establish his own firm, Redkite, which used existing infrastructure to spot insider trading.
This, he says, was because he was more driven by the purpose than the money. It’s also his trading past that sparked his interest in the idea he’s working on today.
Just as Jim Leman created the institutional standard FIX (Financial Information Exchange) Protocol used for most global trading by re-purposing telephone lines, Edge thinks blockchain can do something similar for the web.
“Somebody’s invented FIX for the internet,” he told NS Tech as he explained how he got to thinking that blockchain could be part of the solution.
“I started thinking about the implications for turning the internet into a system where you can verify facts and exchange things. My concern was that because of the fear of the technology, the benefits might be overlooked.”
Since 2013, he’s been building his network, talking to engineers and setting the wheels in motion for today.
He helped set up a think tank to explore the idea, which led to the production of the government’s own report on the technology by Chief Scientific Advisor Mark Walport.
Now ID2020 has been created as a facilitator for achieving the goal at UN-level, through public-private partnership.
“If we’re going to create a planet-wide system for identity – 15 years is not a lot of time,” Edge agrees, that’s why ID2020 has been founded with a “lean startup” mindset.
“If it works, it might be a model for all the remaining 168 goals,” he says.
Edge thinks that by targeting the last 1%, the ones who are never touched by traditional aid programmes, it’ll be easy to address the rest.
It’s likely that’d be through a combination of mobile devices, blockchain and AI, but Edge says this isn’t for him to decide.
“Right now we want to be asking questions. Is the technology relevant to the problem? Can we create a system leveraging new technologies that are massively scaleable to 1bn-plus people?”
The likes of PWC have already given it their backing – but Edge says he’s all too aware of the implications of corporate involvement.
“ID2020 can’t be owned, controlled or bought. You will never see – ‘XYZ Megacorp buys id2020’. The idea is not PWC’s to roll out.
“But there are kids, millions, that are in trouble and technology may be able to help – so I say to anyone – if you are able to help and are not conflicted then it’s a duty to help.
“It’s the age old problem with any new technology – can you do something with it without creating a weapon?”
He points to India’s Aadhar project which has had “tremendous volumetric success” in databasing 750 million identities.
“But what about the data? Having all that data in one place means someone could take control over it and use if for something like religious targeting.
“It has to offer self-sovereign identity to make it non-weaponisable. Your own personal data store – your data.”
This is just the beginning of ID2020’s journey to potentially solving one of the world’s most pressing problems.
The talks could come to nothing. Blockchain could be the wrong solution. The idea could fall into the wrong hands.
But speaking to Edge this week, he’s definitely determined to bring people together to try.