Big Brother is considering watching you

Monday 08 August 2016

The UK government is going big on blockchain, but it’s not all good news.

I was pleasantly surprised when the UK government came out with its Beyond Blockchain report, which was remarkably positive about the potential of blockchain technology. In fact, the government committed to researching and trialling various schemes in the coming months and years - not just taking a light-touch regulatory approach but actively researching and developing applications based on distributed ledger technology (DLT).

It turns out that they have already been testing one application on the quiet. As the BBC’s tech correspondent Rory Cellan Jones writes, ‘The Department of Work and Pensions tell me it began in May, will run for up to six months, and is designed to look at how the technology might help benefit claimants manage their money. Up to 24 welfare claimants will use an app provided by a company called Govcoin to track their spending.’

Eye

Just checking we know absolutely every single thing about you. You know, for your own good.

Guys. Seriously?!

Now, it’s a warm day here in the UK (we do have them occasionally), but this is the kind of thing to make your blood run cold. Because the implications of this particular application of DLT are far-reaching and, frankly, pretty concerning. The pitfalls are so obvious that even some of those who have worked in the Government Digital Service and helped shape their policies were quick to state their reservations. One said that the trial could be ‘a potentially efficient way for DWP to restrict, audit and control exactly what each benefits payment is actually spent on, without the government being perceived as a big brother’.

Now, this isn’t entirely surprising. As I wrote in a previous article Why permissioned ledgers terrify me, this will likely become an attractive way for governments to control their populations - especially the more marginalised elements, like refugees and benefits claimants.

‘Here in the UK, refused asylum seekers who cannot return home for one reason or another are given an Azure card. This is a kind of pre-paid card loaded with £35.39 a week. This money can only be spent in certain shops, and there are restrictions on what the money can be used for. Aside from the stigma involved in presenting the card at checkouts, and the fact that staff don’t always know what to do with it, users may have to walk a long way to get to a participating store (you can’t spend it on travel, amongst other things)... Now imagine that the unprecedented control offered by permissioned DLT was applied to that system and others. Perhaps you’re unemployed and are collecting benefits - but you can only spend them in certain places, on certain things. Or you’re a migrant who is simply refused banking facilities altogether. Banking becomes, more so than it currently is, a tool by which governments and corporations track and control people - particularly vulnerable people.’

At the time I wrote that I had China in mind. So I’m particularly unimpressed that the UK government has chosen to kick off their exploration into DLT with this particular application. It’s unclear quite how or why this project was approved, since 1) It’s politically sensitive, to say the least, and 2) The DWP apparently has no immediate intention of changing its systems.

It remains to be seen how such initiatives will fare under our new Prime Minister, Theresa ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ May. But right now, a collective facepalm seems to be in order.


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