Catalan independence protest in Times Square, New York City in 2013 (via Wiki commons).
Politics,  Technology

Road to Catalonian independence may go through blockchain

It could be more than just self-sovereignty the region’s separatist government hopes to see in IdentiCAT

With its latest blockchain strategy, the government of Spain’s Catalonia region is not only putting itself ahead of the curve in terms of offering citizens control of their personal information, it is ratcheting up its campaign to break away from Spain.

The Generalitat of Catalonia is a semi-autonomous region of Spain. It’s power was briefly seized by the central Spanish government in 2017, after holding what Madrid saw as an illegal referendum calling for independence.

On the surface, the IdentiCAT project’s goal is to create a blockchain-based, self-sovereign digital identity for citizens intended to allow them more control over private data. 

“Up until now IDs were kept and governed by public bodies,” the regional government said in a September 7 announcement. “In the case of Catalonia with IdentiCAT, it will be the citizens who will safeguard and manage the details of their personal identities and activities by themselves. [With IdentiCAT], government bodies will only act as validators of the technology, and citizens will become the issuers and managers of their own identities.”

Specifically, IdentiCAT will allow Catalonian citizens to provide “any required feature of their identity keeping the rest of their data contained in their ID private,” the Generalitat’s release said. “For example, self-sovereign ID may be used to prove that a person is of legal age without having to provide either the date or the place of birth.”

The goal is to “empower Catalan citizens so they may carry out activities with full assurance and security in the digital society of the 21st century,” saidJordi Puigneró, the Catalonian minister of digital policy and public administration, in the release. 

Signing up will still require some form of Spanish or EU issued ID, and Puigneró emphasized that IdentiCAT is not technically a formal government identification card at the press announcement. “It is a tool to access the digital services with more privacy, to develop the economic sector, to empower the citizen, and guarantee maximum privacy,” he said, according to Catalan news outlet VilaWeb.

And, signing up will be voluntary.

After the IdentiCAT goes live in 2020, a second phase “will entail deploying and disseminating IdentiCAT among citizens, Catalan public bodies, and companies, so as to become standard use in Catalonia,” according to the Generalitat. 

Sovereignty… but for whom?

The undercurrent to the whole IdentiCAT project is the relationship between identification and government control, especially in light of the nationalist Catalan government’s relationship with Spain. 

For one thing, a voluntary ID document that has become standard among both the population and businesses is a lot easier to turn into a national ID, if the need (or opportunity) arises.

It’s also worth noting that when pitching IdentiCAT—which is part of a broader Blockchain Strategy of Catalonia released in June and focused on economic growth—the Generalitat release brags that “Catalonia will thus become the first country to have a decentralized digital identity” in Europe. 

But Catalonia is not a country, it is a semi-autonomous region of Spain. 

And it’s hard to hear a regional government that has just had an independence vote stopped by force speak about the need to “empower citizens” and provide them with a “self-sovereign” identity without looking at it through the lens of independence. 

“It sounds like they’re saying the right things in terms of rolling out a privacy-protecting identity system. And we definitely think that self-sovereign identity and other distributed ledger-based forms of identification are worth exploring,” said Peter Micek, a human rights attorney and lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) focused on Internet governance. “My main question would be why are they rolling out this program in the first place? You have to point out that counting and verifying your citizens is a really fundamental role of government and a very powerful position for any entity to be in.”

While Micek did not want to address the conflict between Spain and Catalonia directly, he did say that for governments in general, the “power you have over citizens and that you exercise through a mandatory identification program…is an expression of sovereignty.”

Adding that governments also see greater digital control over their citizens “as a pathway to relevance,” Micek said, “I don’t think it’s too difficult to make that connection in this case—to say that the Catalan government is probably trying to roll out this program to enhance its legitimacy and its power and ultimately [its] control.”

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Leo Jakobson, Modern Consensus editor-in-chief, is a New York-based journalist who has traveled the world writing about incentive travel. He has also covered consumer and employee engagement, small business, the East Coast side of the Internet boom and bust, and New York City crime, nightlife, and politics. Disclosure: Jakobson has put some 401k money into Grayscale Bitcoin Trust.