Blockchain, Self-Sovereign Identity, and Selling Off Humanity

Reposted with permission from Wrench in the Gears.

facial recognition
refugee iris scans

Digital currency payments validated with biometric information like iris scans have been prototyped using refugee populations over the past few years (see the featured image). While the technology that undergirds it is complex, programmers are developing accessible interfaces that make using digital currency as easy as opening an app and verifying a transaction, financial or otherwise, with a thumbprint or facial-recognition scan.

It’s time activists began to develop a working knowledge of Blockchain and self-sovereign digital identity, because these are the mechanisms that will drive the transition to IoT monitoring for the purposes of Pay for Success deal evaluation. I created a slide share about Blockchain as part of a “Smart Cities” post I wrote last year, which can be accessed here if it helps to have visuals.

 

Blockchain Slideshare

 

The technology became public in 2008 when Santoshi Nakamoto published the whitepaper “Bitcoin: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System.” No one knows who Nakamoto actually is. Over the past decade Bitcoin digital currency has generated significant buzz, yet many believe Blockchain will be even more transformative, as big as or bigger than the rise of the Internet.

MIT is heavily involved in Blockchain research and development through its Digital Currency Initiative, housed within the MIT Media Lab. The program is led by Neha Nerula, formerly of Google who holds a PhD from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Nerula served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Blockchain from 2016-2017. Its faculty advisor, Simon Johnson, co-founded the Sloan School’s Global Entrepreneurship Lab and worked as chief economist for the International Monetary fund.

In an April 2018 article, “In Blockchain We Trust,” Michael Casey, global economics professor, goes into detail regarding the use of Blockchain to create “value” in virtual worlds by securing ownership of digital assets. As we kill off the planet and begin spending more and more time in online environments, there’s cold comfort knowing the forces of global monopoly capital are rapidly colonizing digital worlds, too.

Blockchain is the structure that underpins crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, but it’s much more than that. In its simplest terms, it’s a ledger that keeps track of transactions, all kinds of transactions that may or may not have a financial component. Unlike a dusty accounting ledger or its modern equivalent, something like Quick Books, data stored on Blockchain is distributed. This means multiple exact copies of the same encrypted data live on peer-to-peer networked computers, which supposedly makes it more secure. If one node goes down the information is not lost. It is portrayed as the ultimate “permanent record.”

Data stored on Blockchain is “verified” by computers that use a consensus process, competing to solve cryptographic puzzles in exchange for Bitcoin payments. This cryptographic authentication injects “trust” into transactions, enabling security without the need of a third party to ensure everyone is on the up and up. Once data is locked into Blockchain, promoters of the technology say it is immutable, unchangeable. Although, as with everything coded, there are still vulnerabilities and hacks as discussed in this MIT Technology Review article “How secure is blockchain really?”

It may be some indication of the level of actual “trust” developers have in blockchain that the Chamber of Digital Commerce and Coin Center created the Blockchain Alliance in the fall of 2015 to “pro-actively engage” with regulatory and law enforcement agencies. In the United States, government partners include: DEA, DHS, DOJ, FBI, US Marshal Service, US Secret Service, ICE/HSI, CBP, IRS-Criminal Investigation, FDA, US Postal Inspection, Commidity and Futures Trading Commission, SEC, FTC, FDIC, as well Attorney General’s Offices in California, Texas, New York, and Ulster County. Seems they have some rather powerful partners.

 

 

 

Some Blockchains are public, others are private. Data stored on private chains can be made accessible using a combination of matched public and private “keys.” A public key is used to verify and encrypt data. It is public and can be known by anyone. A private key decrypts data that has been encrypted with its paired public key. These keys consist of extremely long sets of characters, which can be shortened to a public key fingerprint or associated with biometric information via a biocryptic process.

Digital currency payments validated with biometric information like iris scans have been prototyped using refugee populations over the past few years (see the featured image). While the technology that undergirds it is complex, programmers are developing accessible interfaces that make using digital currency as easy as opening an app and verifying a transaction, financial or otherwise, with a thumbprint or facial-recognition scan.

Beyond their capacity to hold tokenized digital currencies, e-wallets are being used to hold all sorts of other information. They are touted as an effective means to manage the continuous flows of activity, money, and data that surround us. In the fall of 2016, the state of Illinois; home to many Pay for Success players including: James Heckman, JB Pritzker, Rahm Emmanuel, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (trading financial and commodity derivatives), charged a Blockchain Taskforce with examining ways to use the technology to promote economic development in the state and “improve record keeping.” Their final report, issued in January, is available here. Below is a map of the players involved. Click here for the interactive version.

Included in the report is an info-graphic I have shared repeatedly. It depicts public welfare food benefits being put on Blockchain with “healthy” eating nudges built into the mechanics. Memorize this. Internalize it. This how they will deploy computer code to control the growing masses of the poor. See Carolyn Leith’s great post “Do you believe Universal Basic Income will save society? Think again.” Putting “friction” in the system is not limited to SNAP benefits. Similarly coded nudges could just as easily be inserted into “choice” options around education savings accounts, healthcare access, and housing vouchers. How about Sesame Credit? It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine citizen scoring being embedded into these systems as well.

In the fall of 2017, Illinois announced a partnership with Evernym, a Utah-based company that develops digital identity solutions. They plan to put birth certificates on Blockchain. Increasing attention is being paid to the field of self-sovereign identity. The premise, if you go along with it, is that you no longer need a centralized authority to recognize your identity. A person can simply build up a digital identity through recorded transactions stored on Blockchain. Un-housed people in major cities are being scooped up as test subjects.

Austin has undertaken such a program with financial support from Bloomberg “What Works Cities” Philanthropies. This population is also one that requires significant support, making them prime candidates for Pay for Success interventions. Of course the impact of the interventions must be able to be tracked and measured, because this is an investment market after all. Self-sovereign identity makes to possible to aggregate all of that data, streamlining deal assessment. Fummi is one app in development to support such programs.

Many “smart” cities are establishing municipal ID programs, touted as a “solution” for people unable to obtain state-issued identification. It sounds good, but I can’t help but wonder if the plan is to convert these programs to self-sovereign identity apps on Blockchain in the not too distant future. Oakland’s program links to a debit card, so there is precedent for tying these IDs into digital payment systems.

Last fall the city of Philadelphia issued a Request for Proposals for the development of a municipal ID program, though it appears to have since been cancelled. The RFP expressed a desire to incorporate tracking other public services, including library access and health records, onto the card. They also wanted to build in the ability to share data with private and non-profit partner organizations via magnetized strips. See screenshot below or read the full RFP here.

This link from the Worldwide Web Consortium discusses use of DIDs or Decentralized Identifiers as key element of this new form of identity management. Of course there are downsides to efficient identity systems. During a panel at the Advanced Digital Identity Summit last fall around  timestamp 26:00, Bitcoin entrepreneur Andreas Atonopolous, cautioned the audience that digital identity systems could pose risks, especially for populations living under authoritarian regimes where governments may use digital methods to control how people interact with society.

Antonopolous described conversations he’d had in places like Argentina where people expressed serious reservations about these systems, because their government had a history of throwing dissidents out of aircraft. If private keys are tied to biometric markers, it should be expected that people will at some point be compelled by authorities to open access to their data-using force to attain a face or fingerprint scan against someone’s will. Or even if brute force were not used, to withhold access to needed services, until the person has no other choice but to submit.

Other pilot programs underway in Illinois include land titling in Cook County, academic credentialing at the University of Illinois, logging green energy task credits, and state licensing for healthcare providers. That last one is interesting; a toe in the water, perhaps, to begin shifting Medicaid onto Blockchain?

The day after I wrote “Minding our Health: Digital Nudge Part Two,” I discovered a 2016 whitepaper by Institute for the Future (creator of “Learning is Earning” and edu-blocks) “A Blockchain Profile for Medicaid Applicants and Recipients.” The paper pitches the idea of creating Blockchain smart contracts to devise “smart” health profiles that would allow AI-mediated sale of healthcare insurance and IoT monitoring of prescriptions and patient compliance. Pretty overwhelming if you consider that IFTF also imagines a future where AI assistants are going to help people navigate their lifelong-learning/human capital management plans.

I have a nagging fear we’re looking at a future where Universal Basic Income stipends proffer subsistence, just enough to keep the masses alive and compel them to sell their data for the most modest luxuries, maybe a chocolate bar. Platforms are being developed right now that encourage the widespread sale of personal data for the purposes of AI development. Access to data is granted using pseudonymous protocols that permit it to be queried without the initiator of the query knowing the actual identity of the person whose data is involved. Proponents of big-data government really want us to believe it’s ok to allow our personal data to be poured into massive data lakes as long as it remains anonymized. Check out Ocean ProtocolEnigma, and datum. I’d love to hear what you think.

Personally, I think they’re aiming to use our digital exhaust to build HAL.

 

-Alison McDowell

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Tracking Students: Google Rolls Out “Anytime, Anywhere” Learning in Kirkland, WA Parks This Spring

Reposted with permission from Wrench in the Gears.

KITE

If you’re going to spend time in your local park, do you want your child glued to a device? Should they be looking at flora and fauna, or screens? Students, parents, teachers, and administrators need to start critically assessing the surveillance and data-gathering aspects of initiatives like the KiTE STEM challenge. As Eric Schmidt of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) says, data is the new oil. With each multiple choice answer (and the location and activity data associated with it) children are being mined for value. I’m not comfortable with that.

Fast forward fifteen years. Imagine that the vision advanced by Knowledgeworks, the futurists at the American Alliance of Museums, the MIT Media Lab, Institute for the Future, and ed-tech impact investors has been realized. Neighborhood schools no longer exist. Buildings in gentrifying communities have been transformed into investment condominiums with yoga studios and roof-top bars. Those in marginal neighborhoods exist as bare-bones virtual reality warehouses where the poor are managed for their data. If you want the narrative version, you can read it here.

A handful of designated structures have been retained as education drop-in centers, places where “lifelong learners” consult with mentors about their (bleak) prospects for acquiring “just-in-time” workforce skills. The global economy has gone digital. Everyone has a Blockchain identity and biometrically enabled payment account. Both are linked to a person’s permanent online record of academic and social-emotional competencies, the public services they’ve obtained, and determinations regarding the “impact” those services have had on their human capital. The social impact investors watch the data dashboards and take their profits.

Redefining Teacher Education
Source: Redefining Teacher Education for Digital Age Learners, 2009

“Future Ready” education has been gamified, decontextualized, and dehumanized. “Learning” repackaged into a product that can be dispensed, consumed, tracked, and evaluated via corporate apps. ICT (Information and Communication Technology) devices have largely supplanted human teachers, who had neither the capacity nor the inclination to gather learner data in the quantities demanded by Pay for Success contracts.

Austerity and technological advances gradually transitioned hybrid, “personalized” learning outside of classrooms and schools entirely. “Freed” of seat time requirements, teachers, grades, report cards, and diplomas, students pursue, in isolation, pathways to “career readiness.” What the concept of “career” means in a time of automated labor, precarious employment, and AI human resource management is open to debate.

A friend shared an article with me this week that reveals early phase trials of digitally mediated learning ecosystems are here. I plan to do another post that goes into detail about the Internet of Things, iBeacons, online learning lockers, Education Savings Accounts, badges, and informal learning settings. For now, it’s enough to know that the Cities of LRNG model the MacArthur Foundation is advancing via their spin off “Collective Shift” involves students using the “city as their classroom.”

Devices monitor an individual’s movements via apps, and accomplishments are logged as students undertake “any time, anywhere” learning. Sometimes it happens in the real world. Other times it happens in virtual or augmented reality. Either way, Tin Can API is watching, logging data fed to IMS Global. Watch this video by Rustici Software LLC, developers of Tin Can API, it’s under two minutes and worth every second. Pay attention to all the layers of data being collected in this simple interface.

In the case of Kirkland, WA, a Seattle suburb, education rewards are being offered to students who choose to participate in an informal STEM learning program in local parks between April 23 and May 13, 2018. A student downloads the app, and questions are delivered to them based on their age. This activity is targeted at children as young as kindergarten. Students can earn “entries,” chances to win personal prizes (museum admissions, IMAX tickets, and Google swag) as well as up to $34,500 in cash for Lake Washington District school PTSA organizations.

Attempting a question, even if incorrect, will win a student one entry, while a question correctly answered in a Kirkland park awards 15 entries. In order to qualify for bonus entries, a student must allow the app access to their real time location, which verifies by GPS if they answered the question while they were within the park system. I find it troubling that awards vary by the student’s location when answering. I can imagine, in some dystopian future, technologies like this being deployed to digitally redline education. It’s a chilling prospect, but not unthinkable.

The app also encourages students to allow the app to track “Motion and Fitness Activity.” Purportedly this is about “increasing battery efficiency;” however, knowing the prevalence of fitness tracking apps and how they are being incorporated into policies around health care (see Go360, the West Virginia teachers strike, and research being done at the Cornell-Tech Small Data Lab) I find this also very concerning. The amount of data being collected on students who download the app, if they follow the recommended settings, is significant.

According to the FAQ, Google is the financial sponsor of this challenge. Partners include the Kirkland Parks Foundation, the Lake District Schools Foundation, the City of Kirkland, the Pacific Science Center, Eastside Audubon, Brilliant.org (an online STEM network and talent scouting enterprise), and KiwiCo (age-based STEAM kit subscriptions). If you are a school administrator you can email them for a free action plan with tips to encourage students to upload the app, so their education can be monitored as part of Google’s pilot learning ecosystem experiment.

If you’re going to spend time in your local park, do you want your child glued to a device? Should they be looking at flora and fauna, or screens? Students, parents, teachers, and administrators need to start critically assessing the surveillance and data-gathering aspects of initiatives like the KiTE STEM challenge. As Eric Schmidt of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) says, data is the new oil. With each multiple choice answer (and the location and activity data associated with it) children are being mined for value. I’m not comfortable with that.

I wrote a companion to this post, Navigating Whiteness: Could “Anywhere, Anytime” Learning Endanger Black and Brown Students? I live in Philadelphia, and the arrests of two black men at a local Starbucks has me thinking a lot about how black and brown students could be placed at risk by the learning ecosystem model. Continue reading here.

-Alison McDowell

Biocapitalism and the West Virginia Wildcat Teachers Strike

Anarchist_black_cat

West Virginia’s Teachers became guinea pigs in a state sanctioned experiment to lower the cost of healthcare by directly linking teachers’ implied unhealthy choices – measured through steps, blood glucose, and waist size –  to the rising cost of healthcare.

One under examined, but critical, contributing factor to the West Virginia Teachers’ wildcat strike was a battle over healthcare – specially rising premiums coupled with enrollment in healthy living programs requiring increasingly intrusive biometric data gathering paired with punitive measures if enrollees did not meet specified targets or refused to participate.

Trouble began for West Virginia’s Teachers with the Healthy Tomorrows Program – a requirement if they wanted to enroll in the state’s healthcare. This healthy living program required participants to submit biometric information gathered at a mandated visit with a designated primary doctor. The required biometric data for submission: blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, and waist circumference. Failure to report or missing the program’s target ranges for these metrics would result in a $500 penalty.

As premiums continued to rise, West Virginia’s Teachers were hit with another shock, they would also be enrolled in the Go365 Program. Go365 required enrollees to wear Fitbits, report their steps, participate in check-ins to the program, and complete surveys which included how vigorously and often they performed sexual activity. Failure to report steps or to meet step targets would result in a $25 per month fee.

Biocapitalism and Education

The West Virginia Teacher’s strike brought to light how the deliberate linking of state power with biocapitalism has tangible dehumanizing effects.

From the separate but unequal institionalization of racism under Jim Crow to the rationing of resources under test-based accountability measures, public schools have a long history of being sites for state sanctioned experiments in social control.

Biocapitalism treats all life as a potential source of profit. Promissory value can be created by molding the next STEM ready workforce or locking kids into low wage, precarious career pathways. Financial speculation allows investors to bet on the winners and losers of the longevity and health game through private insurance rationing and discriminatory pricing. Government investment in social impact bonds opens a whole new market for speculation – an opportunity to bet on members of society too sick or broken to be covered by private insurance.

West Virginia’s Teachers became guinea pigs in a state sanctioned experiment to lower the cost of healthcare by directly linking teachers’ implied unhealthy choices – measured through steps, blood glucose, and waist size –  to the rising cost of healthcare.

One important aspect of this experiment is how it cleverly dismisses any critique of the overall healthcare system or the effect of the for-profit model on costs. Instead, the issue is framed as individual teachers making unhealthy choices as the sole driver of skyrocketing healthcare costs.

Sneaky.

-Carolyn Leith