We all have heard about blockchain and crypto currency or Bitcoin, but some of us may not fully understand it. There are many definitions of blockchain, but essentially, it is a decentralized, publicly accessible network that is highly secured. In other words, blockchain is a type of shared database that differs from a typical database in the way that it stores information; blockchains store data in blocks that are then linked together via cryptography. As new data comes in, it is entered into a fresh block. Once the block is filled with data, it is chained onto the previous block, which makes the data chained together in chronological order. Thus, blockchain can be used in a decentralized way so that no single person or group has control—rather, all users collectively retain control over the data.
The blockchain technology allows for digitizing transactions and is used in many sectors, such as cross-border payments, healthcare, real estate and banking. There already is a digital health passport, such as the IBM® Digital Health Pass, a secure way to carry your vaccination status or COVID-19 test results with you, which allows you to remain in control of your personal health information. So why not use blockchain for digitizing passports, visas, and other immigration documents? What are the pros and cons for utilizing blockchain in immigration transaction and international travel?
Well, a digital passport as proof of one’s identity and nationality would be very beneficial for several reasons. Even though many countries now issue an e-passport or a biometrics passport, it remains a physical document. We have to carry the passport with us as we travel, and any visas, admission stamps, or related immigration documents become part of the passport as a physical entity. Unfortunately, the present physical passport system is vulnerable to identity theft, the processing times for passport issuance can be long, and it is difficult to recover a lost or stolen passport. Moreover, since each Government maintains the passport data in a centralized data base, there is a high chance of the personal information of its users (i.e. of the passport holders) being compromised.
What if our passports were based on blockchain technology, given how secure and transparent that system is? Then, the distributed network in blockchain will provide people with full control of their identity since data will be immutable and stored in encrypted blocks (just like the way the IBM® Digital Health Pass works.) And to guarantee the validity of the passport, the government will issue identity documents and authorize the passport.
Imagine such an international travel system where we only need to provide proof of our identity, rather than the identity itself. Instead, we hold accounts with an identity blockchain, where our passports, birth certificates, and visas were validated. This validation (a ‘transaction’ in blockchain terms) would be stored on the blockchain, becoming immutable. A set of rules could be built into the blockchain to certify that a birth certificate is always valid, but a passport only for 10 years and the visa only for 5 years. The immigration agency in the country where we travel to, would then have to request access to this data. We would grant access for the necessary period of time and the blockchain would validate the claims we make. Such a system will help do-away with forged passports and visas, unauthorized and repetitive data verification process, would allow people to have control over their data, and make travel a hassle-free process.
Blockchain could, therefore, solve so many issues around identity management and migration, even if the system is only recognized within a particular country’s government department. But while there may be great benefits to developing such a system, getting inter-agency or international agreement could be quite challenging. New validation practices would need to be adopted, and the cost of the system would need to be shared. Nonetheless, blockchain-based distributed ledger implementation could make the travel and immigration process more secure and streamlined, as well as improve efficiency, and possibly, lower the costs.
This is just one narrow example of the endless potential of blockchain. Interestingly, the most developed use of government issued electronic ID (eID) and blockchain technology so far, can be found in Estonia. Estonia has an E-Identity ID card that is deployed on the KSI Blockchain, and trials for similar eIDs are ongoing or in development in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Finland and the United Arab Emirates.
In summary, there is a recognized need for trusted identities on the Internet, as well as in emerging blockchain-based, decentralized ecosystems. Such blockchain-based applications require a state-of-the art identity management, alignment of business objectives with technology requirements and data privacy issues, as well as government collaboration. Blockchain is certainly a fascinating area with various applications, one of which should be immigration. Please let me know what you think by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org.