MADHATTERS Missives: Blinding our governments to race

On Friday, new US president Donald Trump signed an executive order that racially profiled at least 90,000 people from seven Muslim-majority countries, affecting each for at least 90 days.

The resulting chaos and confusion at airports across the country featured officials, seemingly confused about who was or wasn’t allowed to enter the US, putting everything down to the passport. If you came from the targeted countries you could get in with a green card, but with a work visa you could not.

Identification has always been a controversial subject. It is not about social identity, i.e. the group that the individual feels he or she belong to. No, the identification of an individual is about the personal data that identifies them. It is controversial because it depends so heavily on who has that information and what they might do with it.

Historically, personal identification information brings back bad memories, particularly in Europe. In Nazi camps, inmates had 6 digit numbers tattooed on their skin. Today, many groups oppose any form of state-held identity information,  for fear of racial and class profiling. Even where intentions are pragmatic, such as registering voters or providing health care services, most civil liberty groups warn that the practical use of information is a slippery slope towards other nefarious activities. The American Civil Liberties Union oppose any form of voter ID registration, claiming that ID laws are discriminatory and reduce voter turnout.

But it is impossible for governments to operate if they aren’t able to identify its citizens. The usual compromise is to identify them for a purpose, such as for tax collection, health provision, or travel, living with the fear that corrupt, fascist governments could be using personal identity against us.

Can technology help the state to govern but without identification? Why do we need to yield the security of privacy just to retain the value of good governance? Our government’s ability to identify us individually is power. We want them to have that power while they’re fully benevolent, but what if we could retain the ability to take it away if they aren’t?

Today’s technology makes this possible. Imagine a world where all of our information is stored privately in personal data stores – private servers only we can access.. These stores hold all our information, but keep it completely in our control. Then imagine the history of our actions are continuously and automatically tracked. It would mean we couldn’t lie about our own data, or change our history. Now, imagine the government wants to provide us with a service, and all they need to know about us is whether or not we qualify to receive it. It could send us a simply query and receive a confirmation, without accessing anything more compromising than the pure qualification parameter itself.

Technology offers us a solution space that could make governments not require any identification at all, and still be able to provide services. Would there be the same human rights concerns with the weekend’s activity if, instead of detaining suspects racially based on their citizenship, we were able to be cryptographically flagged as ‘suspect’ / ‘not a suspect’ from our past activity?  Already, block chains are being used to help with identity information of refugees.

Can there be a future where governments are racially blind?

Leila Trilby is the Editor-in-Chief of the MadHATTERs Weekly, a magazine dedicated to personal data privacy and empowerment

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