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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Do You Believe a Universal Basic Income will Save Society? Think again.

Elysium
Elysium – “Would You Like To Talk To A Human?”

I can’t help but get a bad feeling whenever a universal basic income is pitched as the next big thing that will fix poverty. Having paid attention to ed-reform, I’ve heard all of this before. Wasn’t No Child Left Behind going to do that? Or Obama’s poverty fighting, opportunity creating tool The Every Student Succeeds Act? We’ve been fed a string of promises from philanthro-capitalists that have failed to deliever. Why would a universal basic income be any different?

With the news that Stockton, California is piloting a universal basic income (UBI) program, I want to take this opportunity to raise an uncomfortable question: Are the philanthro-capitalists using the idea of a universal basic income as a way to save society or themselves?

I can’t help but get a bad feeling whenever a universal basic income is pitched as the next big thing that will fix poverty. Having paid attention to ed-reform, I’ve heard all of this before. Wasn’t No Child Left Behind going to do that? Or Obama’s poverty fighting, opportunity creating tool The Every Student Succeeds Act?

We’ve been fed a string of promises from philanthro-capitalists that have failed to deliever. Why would a universal basic income be any different?

About that Stockton universal basic income pilot, from CNN via MSN news:

The concept of Universal Basic Income has gained traction and support from some Silicon Valley leaders, including Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg. It is seen as a way to possibly reduce poverty and safeguard against the job disruption that comes from automation.

“We should explore ideas like universal basic income to make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas,” Zuckerberg said at a Harvard commencement address in May 2017.

The Stockton project has its roots in Silicon Valley, too. Its financial backers include Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes’ organization, the Economic Security Project — a fund to support research and cultural engagement around Universal Basic Income. It contributed $1 million to the Stockton initiative.

Oh, and don’t think for a moment this “free” money doesn’t come with a cost.

The project, expected to launch in 2019, hopes to use data to address the policy questions about UBI. For example, does a guarantee of a basic income affect school attendance and health, or cause people to quit their jobs or start new businesses?

The project is also interested at looking at how the funds impact female empowerment and if it can help pull people out of poverty.

The hidden cost to a universal basic income system will be personal surveillance and data harvesting combined with “nudges” from the state to help citizens make the “right” choices.

If you still don’t get the hint and continue to miss your behavior targets, these nudges will be combined with disciplinary actions.

What exactly is a nudge? I’ll let Wrench in the Gears explain:

Behavioral economics is the study of how psychological, cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural factors influence the economic choices a person makes. It challenges the idea of homo economicus, that people maintain stable preferences and consistently make self-interested choices in relation to market forces. The field was popularized in the United States by Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kaheneman. University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler built upon this work. Thaler won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his research last year.

Thaler worked closely with Cass Sunstein, who headed Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In 2008, they co-wrote Nudge, a book espousing “libertarian paternalism.” People make “choices,” but systems can be designed and implemented to encourage a preferred “choice,” generally one that prioritizes long-term cost-savings. “Choice architects” create these systems and weave them into public policy. Through strategic application of “nudges,” citizens,  otherwise “irrational actors” in the market, can be guided to conform to economists’ expectations. Through nudges, human behaviors are redirected to fit mathematical equations and forecasts. David Johnson’s 2016 New Republic article Twilight of the Nudges, provides useful background on this technique and the ethical implications of applying nudges to public policy.

Here’s some examples of how nudges could be incorporated into a universal basic income program:

  • –Miss your target monthly steps or blood glucose numbers? Expect a penalty to be deducted from your universal basic income account.
  • –Didn’t buy enough fruits and vegetables to be considered “healthy”?  Penalty.
  • –Your kid has an unacceptable number of tardies or unexcused absences from school. Penalty.

God forbid you get flagged for purchasing what is considered an “unhealthy” amount of booze or spend too much time on Weedmaps or Leafly.

In a solutionist world, getting flagged could land you on an anti-social watchlist. Being flagged as an anti-social actor in the program would carry a significant penalty. If the algorithms administering your account determine you have become a serious threat, expect an unannounced human intervention.

This clip from the movie Elysium illustrates the serious nature of a human interaction with an agent of the surveillance state.

With nudges and total surveillance, a universal basic income has all the makings of a dystopia. Not exactly a world I want my kids to inherit. How about you?

But what if it’s much worst?

Remember after 9/11 when President George W. Bush urged everyone to go shopping? I’m starting to feel like the universal basic income plan is the billionaire prepper equivalent.

What if the super-rich designed a system where the 99% keep the economy running with a universal basic income, while the 1% get to retreat to the safety of their high tech bunkers –away from the destruction they helped unleash on society and the environment.

Besides social control, what if the point of a universal basic income is to keep some sort of currency circulating so the bitcoins, dollars, or hoarded cans of tomato soup – whatever currency the 1% are counting on to keep them secure and comfortable – is still being traded by the masses and by doing so retaining its value.

From Survival of the Richest:

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

That’s when it hit me: At least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology. Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.

I encourage you to read all of Survival of the Riches. Afterward, I challenge you to answer this simple question: Do you still believe the predatory philanthro-capitalists have your best interests at heart?

I don’t.

-Carolyn Leith

The Comforting Lie of Basic Income and the Unpleasant Truths about the Platform Economy

Knightscope security robot

The powers that be have big plans for remaking the economy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include living wage jobs or security of any sort for a vast number of citizens.

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a sobering example of what’s in store for workers in the coming platform economy.  A recent study found 3.8 million jobs had been completed by 2,676 workers using the MTurk platform as an intermediary between employer and employee. Of this sample, the median hourly wage for most workers was $2/hour, with only 4% of the total workers able to earn more than $7.25/hour.

No wonder the technology monopolists love the idea of a basic income, albeit for self-serving reasons.

First, there is the traditional libertarian argument against the intrusiveness and inefficiency of the welfare state – a problem that basic income, once combined with the full-blown dismantling of public institutions, might solve. Second, the coming age of automation might result in even more people losing their jobs – and the prospect of a guaranteed and unconditional basic income might reduce the odds of another Luddite uprising. Better to have everyone learning how to code, receiving basic income and hoping to meet an honest venture capitalist.

Third, the precarious nature of employment in the gig economy no longer looks as terrifying if you receive basic income of some kind. Driving for Uber, after all, could be just a hobby that occasionally yields some material benefits. Think fishing, but a bit more social. And who doesn’t like fishing?

Does earning $2/hour seem less terrifying on top of a basic income?

I’m not convinced, but there’s plenty of progressive thought leaders who are willing to jump on the bandwagon.

For example, The Economic Security Project recently held their first ever CASH Conference to re-imagine the economy and redefine work. Of course, a basic income scheme was the glue that was going to hold the whole thing together.

The Economic Security Project invites you to our first ever CASH Conference this fall in San Francisco. We will meet at the historic Old Mint, a building that once housed a third of our nation’s wealth, to reimagine what an economy built on the well-being of everyone could look like. We want to redefine what ‘work’ means and explore how a basic income could provide economic stability to Americans and fundamentally change society. Come hear former SEIU president Andy Stern on the future of work, State Representative Chris Lee on how to move politics forward, and Elizabeth Rhodes from Y-Combinator with an update on their basic income pilot in Oakland. We’ll talk to experts about the evidence for unconditional cash, examine why a basic income may be our best shot at alleviating poverty, surface the history of a guaranteed income in the fight for civil rights, and look at the kind of societal shifts automation could bring. We are bringing together artists, academics, activists and curious newcomers for a day of challenging conversations as we forge ahead towards a more secure future, and we want you there.

Alleviating poverty and fighting for civil rights, sounds so progressive, right?

But if you take the time to dig down, some inconvenient facts begin to surface. One of the most uncomfortable being that one of the progressive champions headlining this conference is more than willing to sell out workers for a seat at the table.

Meet Andy Stern, who uses his past relationship with SEIU as his progressive badge of honor. Never mind that during his time as union head he repeatedly undermine workers and – take special note education activists – later joined the board of the Broad Center, an organization hostile to public education and the teachers unions.

When it comes to the future of work, I don’t want Andy Stern speaking on my behalf.

But organizations also assume the same role as activist leaders  – masquerading as progressive champions while settling for market based solutions that don’t disrupt the interests of their monied benefactors.

The Y Combinator pitch for it’s basic income pilot is a perfect example of settling for the status quo and treating the symptoms rather than tackling the root cause of inequality.

What’s even more disturbing is the Y Combinator’s unquestioning acceptance of the radical remaking of the economy to further serve the interests of the rich and powerful. Think about it: if restructuring the economy is this easy, why isn’t the Y Combinator advocating for a humane system that ensures everyone gets what they need from the get go?

This fake progressivism starts to make sense once you take a look at two intertwined forces bent on destroying traditional institutions and replacing them with technological solutions which will consolidate power for those that control them: the platform economy and big data.

The platform economy creates a digital middle man between workers and employees. The platform handles the money and logistics while the worker covers most of the costs of doing business (insurance, health care, upkeep). Jobs become a string of temporary projects or gigs. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is an example of the platform economy. 

Big data is the lubricant that keeps the whole system running – from the practical to the Orwellian. It picks up the garbage and enables new ways to create and extract wealth by data mining citizens in a total surveillance society. It allows capitalism to decouple wealth creation from the physical world and jump to the virtual. Total data collection opens up the opportunity for financial speculation, granular commercial targeting, and invasive state interventions into the lives of “troubled” citizens.

The Y Combinator basic income plan wraps the platform economy and big data into a human friendly package. First, it gives cover to and accepts as inevitable, the coming dominance of the platform economy. Second, it has the appearance of socialism – free money for everyone – while downplaying the true cost of this program.

What’s the true cost? Total surveillance of your personal habits, health, political activity, financial activity and education choices – with the understanding that the state may need to step in and nudge targeted citizens if they become a drag on the system.

If data is the new oil, then the Y Combinator basic income plan is a gusher.

Of course, the Y Combinator isn’t putting all of its nest eggs in one basket. This start-up incubator already has a whole division devoted to education with an emphasis on “the application of technology to enrich and transform education for all learners”. Ed-tech graduates of the program include: ClassDojo, Clever, MakeSchool, Padlet, Panorama Education, Platzi, and Remind.

But the problem goes much deeper than fake progressive leaders and organizations putting their stamp on anti-worker and market based initiatives.

How deep?

Guess who first pitched the idea of a basic income?

Milton Friedman, father of neoliberalism, who gushed after Katrina:

Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.

One thing about Milton Friedman, he was a true free-market champion and didn’t hide his intentions behind feel good double-speak like today’s education reformers and fake progressives.

He also called his basic income idea what it truly was: a negative income tax.

What’s a negative income tax?

The idea being poor people would get a portion of their designated negative tax payment back from the state as a cash reimbursement. The catch? These payments would be covered by cuts to existing government services like food stamps, social security, remnants of existing welfare programs and any other government initiatives designed to assist the poor.

Not only is this much less progressive than advertised, it provides the technology monopolists another market to exploit by leveraging and building upon the data collected by a basic income program.

Who needs any form of government when various online platforms can offer every kind of social service imaginable while Wall Street provides the funding through social impact bonds?

-Carolyn Leith