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For International Women’s Day, here’s how blockchain can battle human trafficking

A distributed ledger with immutable biometric data can provide proof of identity victims need to protect themselves

Human trafficking for the international sex trade is a nearly $100 billion business, and it is one that blockchain developers think they can help fight.

Nearly five million people around the world are sex slaves, according to a September 2017 report by the International Labor Organization. The vast majority of them women and nearly one third are children. Another 15.4 million women are in forced marriages. On International Women’s Day, it’s worth looking into how blockchain can aid and protect them.

One year ago, on March 16, 2018, Brooklyn-based Consensys won the Blockchain for Humanity challenge to create a tool to combat child trafficking in Moldova, a former Soviet-block nation that is the poorest country in Europe. According to Reuters, Consensys is working with the Molodovan government on a pilot program to ensure that children have their identities confirmed with a retinal or fingerprint scan, and guardians notified.

According to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2018, the government of Moldova, “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.”

The Blockchain for Humanity Challenge, a project of the United Nations’ Unite Ideas, the World Identity Network (WIN), along with two UN agencies, sought to create a biometric-based digital identity platform built on immutable blockchain technology. Calling secure identification “a cornerstone of child safety,” WIN noted that the European Commission has said, “the vast majority of victims of trafficking are not identified, and consequently do not have access to their rights to assistance, support and protection. Instead they can be at all times deported, detained or treated like criminals themselves.”

Specifically, Consensys is developing an Ethereum-based system to create a digital identity for every citizen that cannot be hacked or forged and that is based on biometric data, likely retina scans. The project builds on its existing uPort identity management system, one of a number of blockchain projects that seeks to create a self-sovereign identity to allow the user to maintain and control their own proof of identity without the need to rely on a central authority (generally a government) to issue one. While there are libertarian and identity theft protection reasons for this technology, in generally poverty-stricken places where trafficking is most rampant, the problem is often lack of an available identity documents. This can be due to lack of access in rural areas (a problem in Moldova), refugee status, or government hostility to certain ethnic or religious groups.

“Child trafficking is one of the greatest human rights abuses,” said Yannick Glemarec, United Nations assistant secretary‑general and UN-Women deputy executive director. “Leveraging blockchain technology offers potentially powerful solutions to address this serious challenge and save the lives of millions of children.”

While Consensys took first place in the Blockchain for Humanity Challenge last year, other entrants were recognized, including Moldova-based AlfaSoft, which shared second place with an entry from Moldovan-born entrepreneur Anastasia Miron, working in collaboration with the Sovrin Foundation (which includes IBM, which has its own IBM Blockchain Trusted Identity tool) and the ixo Foundation (which counts Consensys and Microsoft as members). Third place was won by BitFury Group with its Exonum solution.

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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.