digital identity | interview with balázs némethi
CEO at Taqanu and invited expert for the World Economic Forum’s Digital Identity Taskforce
Thank you for joining us for this interview series, we’ve been talking to experts in aging, mobility, technology, policy to uncover the business and social opportunities that inclusive and accessible products, services and experiences deliver.
Q: Could you tell us about your story and the great work that you’re doing right now?
I’m a Hungarian citizen and I live in Germany. Growing up I was a sailor, I was in the Hungarian National Sailing Team. Following that I graduated in engineering from a Hungarian university, and in that time I was already engaging with entrepreneurship. About two years ago I started a company called Packenham which at the time focused on helping refugees getting a bank account, and create a technology driven solution that answers to all the requirements around identity and onboarding to create a banking solution for newcomers, mostly in the European Economic Zone.
After a pivot in the project the company is focusing solely on digital identity in a very global scope, and looking into ways to create and manage extremely private concerns identities, so we can avoid what happened recently with Facebook.
Q: Why is it important to help refugees have a digital identity?
It’s not only important for them to have an identity, it’s the ability to verify themselves in the digital but mostly in the physical space, to prove their background and their story. After interviewing many people who came to Europe in the recent refugee crisis, it became clear that many of them are professionals and had businesses running, but they lost the proof of that because of conflict. Of course, this isn’t the only marginalized group in the world; there are a lot more.
We help refugees create an identity history that can be used to prove who they are, in a very impactful way of thinking. The system can also enable organizations that work with them to manage their information more easily, and to share them with other organizations, when they come in contact with the individual, in a trustworthy way.
Q: Could you tell us about the experience of a refugee who might be a professional, but when they arrived in a new country weren’t able to prove who they were and what they could do?
I’m going to tell two stories, because we’re not only focusing on refugees, they’re just the first user case.
The first example is a refugee getting through the Greece border by sea or any other means, with no papers and no proof of anything. Their first contact will probably be either a camp manager, or some Border Patrol. Let’s assume the person has a smartphone that was carried through the water in a waterproof bag or casing; that person can create an identity on their phone and self-claim it, and it’s not verified at any level, but at least there’s their name and their birthday as they claim it is.
When they go to a camp, the camp manager’s role in this case it’s not to verify this identity, just to compare their photograph and believe that’s their name; he doesn’t have a way to actually authenticate them, but he still gives a personal verification to the user.
This verification comes with identity, and that brings access to services offered by the camp: water, food, health, shelter and potentially cash distribution. And then once the refugee goes into another camp, they won’t need to check his identity all over again, because they can see that it has already been verified by the previous one. That makes the entrance of the user extremely quick, and once they’re inside they can receive the necessary support.
This way, when they arrive in the final host country where they actually want to apply for asylum, that person will have a story to tell; with questionable dates and times, of course, but it will be a cryptographically provable series of events where participants are verified. People within the NGO space can be asked about the person, and they can vouch for them from their camps.
The second story comes from another project we’re working on in a developing African country, where basically there’s no government identity system at all. None of their citizens have identity. Some of course have passports, those on the wealthy elite, but the other citizens have no means of proving who they are. It’s one of the poorest countries in Africa, and that comes with a large amount of violence. In this case we’re focusing on commodity production: along with our partner organization we’re setting up a framework for identifying people using biometrics and self-acclaimed data, to create their first identity.
The goal of these identities is not yet to open a bank account, nothing high level. It’s to enable them to access a factory supply chain solution that we’re working on, to access the service with an extremely high level of assurance that there’s only one of them using it, and that there are no multiple copies or multiple accounts.
It’s important from an architecture and design point of view. We’re building the entire service so we can prove to the end buyers that whatever material they bought is coming through a factory supply chain. Everyone would get paid in the in the chain according to verts standards, for example.
And you’re putting identity at the center of all of this.
Q: How do you define inclusion?
I’m pretty biased, because the tagline of our company is that identity is a catalyst for global, social and financial inclusion; it’s only a tool, it’s what you use to access all the other services. If you have a well established identity services will be available. That’s inclusion－and it’s in our bloodstream, it’s what we’re focusing on.
Interestingly enough, we don’t only work in developing countries; we have a couple of projects in the West, in the developed world, where we’re proving that identity in the digital spaces is not yet a solved issue. A couple of potential clients are interested in using the technology at a much higher level of verification, to offer services to their clients.
So for inclusion to work you have to acknowledge that a person is who they say they are, that they have an identity. As soon as you can confirm that then you open up a whole set of services and opportunities for them that they otherwise might have just been shut out of.
We can also prove if a person is who they say they are, without exposing any personal data. Since the organization is only interested in the verification part, we can show just that. If a company doesn’t need any of the other data that might be included in the identity, then this is a good way to keep privacy.
Q; How do you apply those principles of inclusion into what you’re doing now?
Through two different approaches. One part of the company’s focus is on humanitarian and impactful identity solutions, and the other part concentrates on the business side, creating profitable tools.
We’re essentially a Blockchain company, and we’re looking into doing a token sale in the next half year. A big part of those tokens will be allocated for projects that have no resources to create a business model. For example, there’s an intractable refugee identity data sharing standard which any of the big NGOs can use for sharing and cross referencing information about the people they’re helping.
Currently there isn’t any tool like that in the world. For someone to be supported by UNHCR and the International Organization of Migration, they would have to enter data sets and each set can be cross-referenced, or they would have to be created at the first instant of meeting.
A lot of people, when they think about inclusion, only look at it through a social lens, but we’re discovering there are really strong business opportunities baked into it. Can you describe your business model?
The business model was created out of the ICO craze that started last year, with the advantage that we’re allocating the non-business visible projects into our Foundation. They’re not going to be CSR projects, but actually sponsored by the Foundation which is to maintain the technology and sort of support the Aqua system but essentially it fully supports the system because it will have more users. From a token perspective it’s a perfect user case, because with very little development a large amount of people can be reached, through partner organizations and partners NGOs.
All the other potentially big business cases will be under the for-profit organization, which focuses on creating large scale solutions that can really advance people’s lives. For example, we’re talking with the government about an identity system －that’s a for-profit solution, even if it has an impact on people’s lives: they would have easier access to government services, in addition to any other of technology or identity stack. The administration has a heavily vested interest in making this solution safe and operational, which makes it a for-profit project.
Q: Are there competitors or substitutes for what you’re doing?
Yes, luckily there’s a couple of other organizations that are working along the same line. Essentially and with the Arab because the forensics. We focus primarily on third world countries and identity creation because the impact is bigger there, but also because the business case is a lot easier to manage: there’s no need to change someone’s compliance or re-strategize an entire system or architecture to enable a privacy concern solution. But we can be part of the first built architecture design, which is already incorporating our solutions. There are longer sales terms, but a bigger return of investment over time.
Q: You’re talking about something that can be implemented. It’s not necessary to turn a whole country or organization upside down in order to make this work.
Q: Who do you consider to be some of the biggest critics of inclusion, and why do you think that is?
It’s a complicated question because even Snapchat is promoting itself as inclusive and yes, everyone can connect with everyone using it. They have an intuitive way of making their technology work, but once we look at their activity with our reality glasses, what we’re seeing is basically sex photos. It’s inclusive, but again, the people who would benefit are a minority.
Greed is at the bottom of all that, and that’s fully against inclusion. The World Bank estimated that with 10, 20 billion dollars everyone could have an identity. With today’s technology and knowledge it’s possible, and yet that money is spent on crypto assets.
Snapchat’s market valuation is currently on the 290 billion; with that amount of money half of Africa’s homes could get power, and many of these companies are able to cover such costs. Greed is an obstacle for inclusion because everyone is looking at bottom lines and returns.
Also, with climate change happening, avidity for money is not going to be a way forward either, we have to change our behaviors.
Q; What are some organizations that you think are really doing an amazing job in the area of inclusion? In your category or outside of it.
There are a number of privacy concerned messaging apps that are amazing: Signal, Telegram and even WhatsApp are keeping people’s privacy safe but at the same time enabling inclusion－if you have even the cheapest smartphone you can download these applications and use them according to your needs, without exposing anything that happens inside. I’m going to be a little bit more technology conservative I think so. They’re amazing tools.
Facebook isn’t the best tool; it can be very dangerous because people don’t know exactly what happens behind the scenes, as we could see in the recent scandal. That said, if people are aware, and I would put myself into this category, that everything they share there is public, then I think it can also be good－I’m connecting with more than half of my friends on Facebook, friends whose address and numbers I don’t have, only their names. I’ve heard many stories of people that reconnected with their childhood friends after 40 years, and that’s amazing. But again, it can be misused and dangerous.
Q: If Facebook is like a black box inside of which no one can see what’s happening, does Blockchain allow you to manage your identity, or at least see how it’s being used?
Almost everything we work on ends up being open sourced, at least from a Foundation perspective. It can be audited not only by inviting these companies, but by any developer who can read code. So there’s a big assurance that what we offer is safe. It’s nothing like Facebook because our company will have no access to user data, unless it would create a solution through some kind of social engineered authentication: using your Twitter or Facebook accounts to prove you’re that person, which can give you another level of verification.
In that case we would access that data but for the sole purpose of comparing that information you created as your digital ID, and checking if your social network presence matches to what was stated in self-claimed identity at the beginning. We won’t become Facebook, we don’t have the ability to do it anyway. We can only prove participants of the system or ecosystem that they can store and share data safely, and that after every single transaction they’ll be notified.
A good example that we’re still pretty far from is the Estonian residency, which is a great example is someone of the everyday. They have a decentralized government already in place. It’s not really a Blockchain, but it’s very similar. With the Estonian residence a citizen can get notified if a doctor opens their health records; a man took a doctor to court there, for accessing his knee surgery data without authorization; and he won the case.
That’s possible because the system was built thinking about customer privacy first, and it’s a great example of how far this can go. Even in less trusted government levels it can work, and it does.
Q: Off the topic, do you still sail?
After graduating in Hungary I studied in Norway, and as a side job I was training youth and adults in the Norwegian Whale Sailing Club. And when I started this project, the same year I got an offer from the club to become one of their head coaches, and lead one of their Olympic teams for some time. Right now I’m more of a hobby sailor.
Q; Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The company is having a stock sale. Also, if anyone is interested in learning more about our work or our new projects and releases, or if anyone wants to participate in the token sale, they should visit our website www.thwnu.com and sign up.
Balazs is an invited expert for the World Economic Forum’s Digital Identity Taskforce and has been in the blockchain digital Identity space for over 2 years. He has a passion for delivering real impact with the use of technology and blockchain. Taqanu, his company is focusing on creating public, mission-critical infrastructures in the identity space that can provide privacy by design for systems in both the developing and developed world.