Using Block Chain Technology to Return Control of Personal Information from Corporations to the Individual

For the past several years, the number of corporations that offer pro bono services has been on the rise. Pro bono refers to services offered by corporations free of charge to communities, using the time and skills of employees. Kristina Yasuda, who is being interviewed in this article, is a pro bono worker and joined Accenture in August 2017 upon graduation. While performing her normal work in Accenture Strategy, Kristina participates in an international public-private social contribution project called “The Invisibles,” which helps develop digital identities for the socially vulnerable populations. We interviewed Kristina about the relationship between technology and human rights, as well as the significance of the project.

[ HBR also spoke with Hiroshi Makioka, the Senior Managing Director at Accenture Strategy Japan. This translated article was originally published on Harvard Business Review Japan.]

Refugees without personal identifications are not legally recognized as people

Ms. Yasuda, what sparked your interest in humanitarian uses of technology?

During my student days, I attended an international conference held by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the use of technology. My colleagues and I discussed how technology should be used to benefit humanity, and I became excited about the possibilities. While my major (at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Science Po) was International Relations, I was also interested in technology and spent one year studying abroad in Silicon Valley and learned about programming, etc.

At the time, I directly faced the challenge of “the fragmentation of personal identification systems in developed nations.” For example, the most recent security breach of the credit reporting service Equifax resulted in large-scale leakage of personal information belonging to some 140 million Americans (almost half the population).

Additionally, everyone’s personal information is siloed and kept in databases, such as the case in Equifax.  Every company that makes you sign in keeps personal information data in a database that is supposedly secure.  With so much data being kept by numbers of companies, it makes us all wonder what kind of information is used for what purposes and by whom. As a result, groups such as Customercommons.org take a new position:  everyone should be able to control access to his or her own personal information. However, fixing already established identification systems in developed nations is very challenging.

While studying in France and traveling over Europe, I witnessed arriving refugees and how they are treated. These refugees were without personal identification (ID), and were thus not legally recognized as persons, and deprived of human rights. If they had IDs, they would be recognized as persons and receive public services. As I spoke with people from NGOs and international organizations, the concept soon solidified into my mind, that if governments were unable to act for political reasons, then civil society needed to act. We needed to find a way to create a new mechanism for granting public IDs to the 1.1 billion persons around the world with such a need.

Without an ID, a person cannot build a foundation for living in the modern world, including access to healthcare and education, opening a bank account, or concluding a service contract for a mobile phone. Even if an individual had an ID in his or her home country, when the person flees the country due to conflict or political turmoil, he or she has no means for identifying himself or herself upon arrival in the new country, resulting in obstacles to achieving even a minimum standard of living.

Using Blockchain Technology to Issue Digital IDs

So, specifically, what kind of system was constructed?

We came up with the idea of issuing a “digital ID” using Blockchain technology, which was first used for virtual currency transactions. The NGO Internetbar.org Institute, where I work, decided to combine the Blockchain technology of the Sovrin Foundation with the biometrics authentication technology of an NGO iRespond. In other words, we organized a private group of non-profits to organize the idea and initial project, and then reached out to larger organizations and government to get on board.

This system allows personal information to be securely managed on a personal device, and after personal information is verified (proofed) under a developing international standard, it can be placed on the Blockchain. The details are more technical to assure that only verified information is part of a person’s ID, but this is the basic idea.

Until now, the administrative agencies and credit card companies of each country have taken the lead and determined the success or failure of a transaction at their own discretion. This new mechanism avoids situations where accumulated personal ID information is proprietary to an administration or a company, and allows individuals to access their own personal information from various locations when needed to give on a limited basis to a third party.

In sum, the system allows an individual to control access to his or her personal information, giving the person the right to specify and approve the disclosed range of his or her information in response to individual inquiries and requests, not allowing information access without the individual’s permission. This is what we call Self-Sovereign Identity.

Proof of concept is already underway, I heard.

Yes. As a project that provides digital identities for those who are socially vulnerable, iRespond issued digital identification certificates that allows tens of thousands of undocumented workers on the border of Thailand and Myanmar to be identified by retina certification using biometrics technology.

As a result, medical treatment can now be given with reference to records such as the refugee’s medical history. Additionally, while the system to date cannot verify whether a person who used a certain ID was indeed that person, resulting in problems such as falsification, the new mechanism offers a solution. Still, some undocumented workers are mistrustful of this new system, a problem that needs to be addressed.

In the future, we hope to combine retina certification and Blockchain technology, and expand the application of digital ID certificates to technologies such as FinTech and EdTech.

Possibility for Global Reverse Innovation

What are the advantages of this mechanism?

As I just mentioned, this system decreases risks such as the misuse that results when a person cannot control access to his or her own digitized personal information. Currently, credit card companies and companies such as major electronic commerce sites have all of our personal information and we have no choice but to approve access of our personal information by others. We believe we can turn such a structure upside down.

The region that is one of the first to test such a concept is the European Union (EU). In May 2018, the EU will enforce the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a new personal information protection rule.

The GDPR is a law that allows an individual to request a company for a change in or erasure of personal data related to him or her on any one of a number of grounds including non-compliance with the method of information retention and personal data use. The law prohibits data transmission outside the EU and, as the latest and strictest global standard, puts pressure on companies across the globe to respond.

Will such personal information protection become firmly established in a global context?

I believe so. As technology continues to advance and the possibilities in personal information management and protection become increasingly possible, global practical use will certainly accelerate. Companies will also change their awareness toward personal information and start listening to those who wonder whether the risks and costs of retaining mass amounts of personal information are worth the advantages received. Governments also spend quite a bit of money holding and managing the IDs of its citizens. There is increasing awareness that the management and protection of personal information that forms an individual is a basic human right.

What should be the purpose of technology?

What is the reason behind Accenture Strategy’s active involvement in community-based activities that contribute to society?

Hiroshi Makioka: At the foundation of its involvement is the belief that technology, irrespective of the times, must be used to improve our lives as well as the communities in which we work and live. Accenture continually accumulates deep technology knowledge and insight in an effort to remain unrivaled in the support we offer our clients in the current digital revolution and, based on the above belief, cannot help but feel that our value lies in contributing to the community in concrete ways and ensuring tangible results.

In this sense, the activities that we offer to the community are not plus-alpha type activities, but rather core activities that maximize our contribution to the world.

Stance toward Solving Problems in Our Communities

How will Accenture Strategy accelerate such initiatives in the future?

Hiroshi Makioka:  The concept that technology is for people, which I mentioned at the start, must take root in the DNA of all employees. For example, while we are proud to be the leading company that provides consulting support in areas such as “Connectivity, Autonomous, Shared, and Electric” (CASE) advocated by Daimler in the auto industry, we must consider what such a world brings or must bring to the level of richness of human lives.

In terms of the extremely large problem of the protection of rights of the socially vulnerable, we must, before we solve the problem of personal identity described by Kristina, consider conventional protection aspects as well as incorporate a new perspective: how to make such a person shine. How can we utilize technology at this time? For example, even in a world of increasing indifference, how can we make it possible for people to learn and experience what the “socially vulnerable” want to do, what they never had a chance to do, or what they felt having survived such turmoil? It is important to think about such things.

At Accenture, pro bono activities are the result of an individual’s will and effort. An experience outside of Accenture such as Kristina’s is an extremely valuable asset, and is sure to help make that DNA mentioned above take root deep within. ■

Profiles:

  • Kristina Yasuda, Accenture Strategy, Accenture

Graduated top of the class from International Relations Department, Paris Institute of Political Studies. Worked as a Japan Youth Representative in numerous international conferences held by UNESCO, UNFCCC, ASEAN, and the EU while a student. Established and spearheaded a digital identity certificate service at Internetbar.org Institute (NGO) in the US based on the theme of supporting developing countries. Joined Accenture in 2017.

  • Hiroshi Makioka, Senior Managing Director, Accenture Strategy Japan

He worked at Marubeni Corporation and Bain & Company and joined Accenture in 2014.

 

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