Americans can show all sorts of documents, such as Social Security cards and diplomas, to show who they are. But for those from countries torn apart by war or political chaos, it’s much harder to prove their identities.
That’s why a new software tool, unveiled on Monday at the United Nations, is a big deal. It will let millions of refugees and other without documents whip out a phone or other device to quickly show who they are and where they came from.
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The tool, developed in part by Microsoft and Accenture, combines biometric data (like a fingerprint or an iris scan) and a new form of record-keeping technology, known as the blockchain, to create a permanent identity.
In practice, this means someone arriving at a border crossing could prove he or she had come from a refugee camp and qualify for aid. Or a displaced person in a new country could use the ID system to call up his or her school records. The tool doesn’t have a name yet since it’s at the prototype stage but will get one soon.
“Approximately one-sixth of the world’s population cannot participate in cultural, political, economic and social life because they lack the most basic information: documented proof of their existence. Establishing identity is critical to accessing a wide range of activities, including education, healthcare, voting, banking, mobile communications, housing, and family and childcare benefits,” Accenture explained in a news release.
The companies have been working on the new system since last year, and unveiled the prototype at a summit in New York called United Nations ID2020. Here is a picture that shows how the system looks on the phone of a user:
“Digital ID is a basic human right,” David Treat, a managing director at Accenture, tells Fortune. He likens the new ID technology to the Internet-naming system, which gives a unique address to any given website.
The new ID system is especially promising because of the blockchain technology, which provides crucial privacy features—and allays obvious concerns about the system being abused by all-knowing global governments.
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Blockchain is a tamper-proof ledger system run across multiple computer systems. Once a certain number of computers confirm a given piece of information—such as a financial transaction or, in this case, an identification tool—the fact is recorded as a permanent record on the chain.
In the case of the new global ID system, it works by storing personal information in such a way that the person who owns it is the only own who grants access to it. Other entities—such as an organization or a school—can share relevant records tied to that person, and write it to the blockchain, but the person controls who else can see it.
Treat explained that cryptography helps ensure that organizations who access a person’s ID record can only do so for purposes of authentication—confirming they are who they say they are—and not for tracking them, or getting access to all their data.
Microsoft’s main contribution to the project is supplying computing infrastructure through its Azure cloud service. The company also works closely with the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, an open-source software group that develops blockchain standards.
Accenture, which caused waves last year by proposing a system to edit blockchains, predicts the ID system will be in use soon but as yet to identify targets for its adoption.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated biometric data is stored on the blockchain. The story has also been updated to reflect Accenture has yet to set specific targets for adoption of the ID2020 tool.