The Internet has evolved over time from a range of contributing developments by mathematicians, scientists and engineers.

In each decade, from the 1940s, inventions included the transistor, the computer, computer networks, remote access to computing power, software and documents and, finally, by the mid-1990s, commercial service providers, which ensured increasingly global connectivity.

Near-instant text and audio-visual communication, and the emergence of social media and online services across industries, have vastly transformed our society in a remarkably short space of time.

The benefits of increased connectivity come with the associated risk around how the information that we create, communicate and store can be intercepted – sometimes with malicious intent.

Cryptography is the ancient art of achieving confidentiality by transforming a message such that is only intelligible to someone in possession of a key.

Since the emergence of the Internet, a multitude of algorithms for data security have been developed, and global standards for encryption protocols provide some level of communications security over our computer networks.

Just months after the financial crash of 2008, the first digital currency to employ cryptography was proposed. It aimed to solve the problem of double-spending, without the requirement for a central trusted third party.

That currency was Bitcoin, now valued at over US $100-billion and one of over 1 000 different crypto-currencies. The technology underlying this decentralised capability is a distributed ledger, or blockchain.

Transactions are recorded in blocks that are linked and secured by cryptography. These records are verified and stored across a network, making the ledger resistant to modification.

The really interesting part is that blockchain, a combination of capabilities in computing, connectivity and cryptography, has applications not only in the financial world but in any transactional environment, including a decentralised personal data management system that ensures users own and control their data.

Ups and downs: The risks of exponential data

As of this year, the digital world’s data content is estimated at billions of terabytes, or zettabytes, 90% of which has been created since 2016.

Information is an increasingly valuable commodity, and its acquisition, analysis and trade play an important role across industries. With one-quarter of the world’s population using Facebook every month in 2017, a lot of this data is personal.

The rise of social media has led to new conceptualisations and discussions around identity, as we build representations of ourselves online.

On the other hand, information about ourselves that we did not intend to be shared or distributed is also contributing to our digital profiles.

Any organisation with stores of personal data can be hacked, be negligent or even sell this data to external parties for profit, resulting in outcomes that range from spam to identity theft.

One definition of personal data is an economic asset generated by the identities and behaviours of individuals, and the monetisation potential of its misuse is astounding.

Services like messaging, search and navigation may appear free to use, but they actually come at a cost: your personal data, or perhaps, more aptly called, your consumer data.

Because, as has been said, if you’re not paying, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. The question of how to verify, secure and manage identity and personal data online is more pertinent today than ever before.

The strongest link in the blockchain

Identification provides a foundation for human rights. An estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide cannot officially prove their identity, and we simply don't know how many of the world's more than 200 million migrants, 21.3 million refugees or 10 million stateless persons have some form of identification.

The World Bank estimates that 78% of these unidentified people are from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

The recent Blockchain Africa Conference in Johannesburg brought together like-minded innovators. Global Consent, based in Cape Town, is one such local player doing exciting things in the identity space.

Consent is developing a blockchain-based trust protocol to independently authenticate identity and selectively exchange personal information.

Consent is also the first Sovrin steward in Africa. Sovrin is the world’s first publicly available distributed ledger dedicated to digital identity.

The code base of Sovrin is part of the open source Hyperledger project, which is governed by the Linux Foundation and backed by corporates including SAP, IBM, NTT and Intel. 

Blockchain has impressive applications in a transactional environment, in this context enabling individuals to own and control their identities online in a decentralised personal data management system where records are verified and stored across a network making the ledger resistant to modification.

Like any network, the strength of a blockchain-enabled personal data management system depends, in part, on its size.

Given the size of the problem of personal identification in Africa, both online and off, we can look forward to ongoing discussion and adoption of technologies like blockchain to meet this challenge going forward.

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