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A Citizen Centered (Decentralized) Government- by John Stevens

I opened a Post Office Box recently, which required standing in line and presenting identification in person, as if I am a stranger who has never been to a Post Office before, as if they don’t deliver valuable packages to my door, as if no federal agency had ever heard of me despite my passport, my military service record, or my tax history. I’m frustrated with the inefficiency of it all, even though I’m glad that no one agency is able to know everything about me.

By contrast, Google has a record of everywhere I’ve been in the last several years. It knows when I stopped for gas last week, where I had lunch on my birthday, and where my girlfriend lives. I love the benefits I get from Google’s centralization of my data, even as I worry about who has access to it and how they may use it.

Data siloes are almost inevitable for any organization. As a nation with libertarian tendencies, data siloes are built into the American governing structure. Still, our government carries this to extremes. A Veteran eligible for a benefit requiring military service and income verification must provide records from the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to the appropriate Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) office, which needs to then verify those records. To get a second benefit, the veteran provides those records again to a second office as if they were entirely unrelated to the first office. This increses the administrative burden for the veteran and for each office. Each office keeps a copy of those records, which is a liability for the office and a privacy concern for the Veteran.

Blockchain and the self-managed identity movement are creating a new model that combines the best of Google-style data collection without the risks of massive government data lakes holding my personal information. In this model, the data is centralized with me, and shareable with government agencies (and others) at my discretion. Here’s how it works:

How a Digital Identity Wallet works

  1. Martha has a digital wallet storing information about her that has been certified by others. She controls what goes into it, and who has access to which information.

  2. People or organizations Martha interacts with may contribute data to Martha’s wallet, with her consent. This can include her identity (often matched to biometrics) or data such as her birthdate. These are called “attestations”. Martha can’t alter this data once it is contributed.

  3. Martha can then share these attestations with others, proving her identity or her age. Because Martha can’t alter an attestation, any attempt she makes to misrepresent them is easily discovered by the receiver.

  4. Because Martha is bound to her wallet by biometrics or other means, nobody else can use her wallet.

If Martha is a veteran, the DoD could contribute her service information (such as that on a DD-214) to her digital wallet. Separately, the IRS could contribute her verified income information. She could then easily and verifiably present these to each benefit office to prove her eligibility. The benefit offices could store only the record of her eligibility, and not the details of her income or service. This process reduces the burden and liability of the benefit offices as well as the burden on Martha and her privacy concerns.

Other nations are moving in this direction. Estonia is the recognized leader in remote government services. By law, no Estonian agency can ask a citizen for information that has already been provided to another agency. This reduces the burden on the citizen, but doesn’t put data ownership into citizens’ hands. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Ministry of Community Development is reducing in-person citizen services through digital identity, blockchain systems, and chat systems. They boast of being able to authenticate nearly 3,000 documents through blockchain.

The benefits of implementing self-managed identity by US government agencies goes far beyond the Veteran’s example. From the farmer doing business with multiple USDA agencies to the federal employee undergoing background checks, we can see a future where we break down data siloes not by consolidating the data in government systems, but by consolidating it with the citizen.

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