Blockchain: Why identity based project in Ethiopia should worry us

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Ethiopia has been facing an ongoing war with its northern Tigray region  counting a year now. With the ongoing conflict leaving the nation high and dry with a brink of famine and genocide. At the same time, we are beginning to recognize the role that technology companies and platforms can play in exacerbating such crises. Various social media have been implicated in worsening matters by inciting violence and amplifying hate speech against certain ethnic groups in the region.

Meanwhile, an offshore “Web 3” project with ambitions to build a national ID system in Ethiopia based on a suite of much-hyped block-chain technologies. The project, known as Cardano, is actually run by a cluster of offshore entities — the Swiss-based Cardano Foundation, Hong Kong-based development arm IOHK and Japan-based venture arm EMURGO, whose ultimate ambition is to build a national ID system for Ethiopia. recently struck a deal with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education for a blockchain-based ID pilot involving five million secondary school students.

At present, Ethiopia lacks a national ID system. Instead, it has a highly decentralised system whereby foundational IDs provided at the municipality level known as “Kebele Cards” can be used to obtain tax IDs, passports and other functional identity documents.

It is perhaps ironic that block-chain promoters such as Hoskinson, who aggressively evangelize “decentralization,” would aspire to build a centralized ID scheme on top of a distributed ledger technology. But distributed computing and decentralized power are not the same thing — far from it. In the case of Cardano, a proof-of-stake consensus protocol allows coin holders to vote and influence how the protocol evolves. Ethiopians, of course, have no say. Moreover, rather than decentralize power, the Cardano network itself becomes a single point of failure — if the network goes down, so do all ID systems.

But while national ID schemes can be highly problematic, building them on block-chain could be catastrophic. Putting aside the very obvious logistical hurdles, including very low internet penetration rates in Ethiopia (that are significantly lower in more rural regions) and the displacement of children from schools due to ongoing conflict and humanitarian challenges, there are much deeper problems. Block-chain is fundamentally accounting technology designed to track and trace digital assets through an immutable ledger of transactions. Block-chain-based ID schemes similarly treat identity as a transaction, mathematical problem. The more transactions, the more profitable for the network.

As the conflict rages on in Ethiopia, Cardano enthusiasts are worried about whether it will interrupt the network’s development plans or reduce the value of their cryptocurrency tokens. As for civil society, we should worry about the implications of block-chain-based ID systems and the incentives driving them around the world. Most importantly, we should resist the urge to narrowly scrutinize the technical contours of a given technology or system; we should instead contest the underlying imaginations that shape it, making sure to ask whose imagination it represents.