Identity & The Shipping Problem

So you’d like to get your package sooner.

Most people would.

In this ever accelerating world, where on-demand is king, the seemingly simple action of transporting a package from one place to the other, quickly, is yet an unsolved inefficient process. Not only does international shipping taking too long, it is costly, error prone and governed by stale bureaucracy.

The number of parties involved in getting a package from one side of the planet to the other is astoundingly high.

ShippingProcess-8.jpg

But there’s more.

Export customs clearance is required by authorities in the country of origin for registration of cargo leaving the country. The export customs clearance is performed by a house broker, and requires submission of a declaration detailing the cargo and supporting documents which differ from country to country.

On top of that authorities in the destination country require import customs clearance for all cargo moving into the country. A declaration of type of goods and value which is used for registration and levying any duty payments.

Are you bored yet? You should be.

This ancient process where brokers run around manually filling papers is still in effect today. Taxes, customs duties, paperwork describing each and every package are manually handled in order to ship/release your package from one port to the other. And you pay for it, in time and money.

Shipping as a Metaphor

You may wonder why rant about such a mundane topic. The answer is that shipping is but a metaphor for something much deeper.

Paraphrasing Sigmund Freud, sometimes a package is not just a package. Should we take this metaphor further, a package can be any goods, asset or monetary instrument that we would like to transport, or transfer ownership of, globally.

To do this we must have some contract between buyer and seller where both sides  believe the other party is indeed who he claims to be (identity), that the goods are real and hers to sell (ownership) and that the other person is going to hold his end of the bargain (trust).

Those pillars of any successful exchange, identity, ownership and trust,  require a massive infrastructure which is currently poorly implemented. Identity is distributed over national borders, so is ownership, and trust is achieved via a complex set of laws differing from one country to the other through a slow, unreliable and costly notary-like mechanism.

All that is about to change.

Identity is Key

In order to own something, let alone be trusted, you must have a verifiable identity.

Imagine you had a single unique global identity (UGI). One that could not be forged or refuted. Extend that notion over inanimate objects such as goods, services and monetary instruments, and you have created an Archimedean point on top of which a global shift can be implemented.

Such an identity would be linked to all your personal data, credit history, personal and health details, owned goods, content you have created and much more.

It would be a digital ghost, unique, never changing and non-transferable (at least as non-transferable as your fingers). A cybernetic image of your self. One that is owned by you, and you alone. Not by governments, nor the Googles or Facebooks.

Reversing Identity

In today’s world your global identity(ies) are provided to you by third parties. Once you log onto Facebook or Google services you are required to create one and use it over multiple websites and services. However if you would have read the fine print in the EULA you negligently clicked, you’d have seen that you do not actually control your data.

This alleged digital ghost of your self is (ab)used by those large corporations in order to track and profile you for their own financial purposes.

But it’s your data. It’s your self. And they’re not nearly paying you enough to take this.

Mind you, a global identity is a good thing (as I will soon suggest) however it cannot evolve out of the Internet free-model, nor off national-governments’ regional identity-systems. At least if you value the privacy of your most fundamental data such as health records, credit history, ownership and any other kind of personal information you deem to be such you want to control. It is you and you alone that should decide who and when should get access to your self.

As Eric Hughes wrote back in 1993 in A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto:

In most cases personal identity is not salient. When I purchase a magazine at a store and hand cash to the clerk, there is no need to know who I am. When I ask my electronic mail provider to send and receive messages, my provider need not know to whom I am speaking or what I am saying […] When my identity is revealed by the underlying mechanism of the transaction, I have no privacy. I cannot here selectively reveal myself; I must always reveal myself.

In order to facilitate a self-serving (in the positive sense) UGI we must reverse the free-model siloed-based identity. We need to expropriate our selves from commercial as well as governmental entities. Only then could we build the next generation public web. One that serves us.

What’s In It For Us

At this point you should ask yourself what is in it for you. Why should you go to all this trouble of creating a UGI, let alone trusting your most personal data in the hands of some obscure cloud server.

The first answer is: you benefit. Greatly. The second one is: you don’t. That is, not to a single cloud server (but we’ll get to that).

Once a robust UGI is in place, once you can send any part of your data to whoever you need to, once there’s a non-refutable scheme in place to make sure this data is indeed yours and you are who you claim to be on a global scale, you can streamline a vast number of processes which in today’s world consume a major part of your time.

Notaries, lawyers, accountants and civil servants are all making a kill on your time and money every time you need a simple thing done. Be it shipping a product overseas, buying a house, investing in a security or asset within or out of the realm of your own nation state or region. All of those things cannot be allowed to remain that complicated time consuming or costly as they currently are.

Should a UGI based system be in place, globally, one can build an automated system for shipping a package quickly from one country to the other where the system tags the content (remember, the product also has a mandatory UGI with all its related data), clears customs automatically in the source and destination, and allows delivering it to the receiving party based on her residential address kept under her UGI. Payment can make its way back to the selling party based on his UGI linked to his bank or virtual currency account. Taxes are automatically processed and paid by whichever party owns them without any redundant paperwork or manual labour of brokers or tax officers.

Simple.

None of that is of course in the interest of the above parties, simply because most of them would lose their jobs let alone control over your data, time and money.

Shipping of goods is of course merely a single example of the benefits of a UGI based system. Others would be medical data, no longer kept in the (unreliable) servers of your medical insurance company, which can decide who to provide it to based on some form you once signed without reading the fine print, rather owned and access-controlled by you.

An even wilder idea (actively discussed for the last couple of years in the ad industry) may be for you to monetize your own data. Instead of being tracked and profiled, your data being sold to ads’ companies that make billions by hitting you with junk advertisements, you’ll be able to selectively decide who gets access to your personal details (and to which part of those) and is allowed to serve you with targeted ads. After all it is your data, why should you give it away just to read a low grade newspaper, or scroll through kittens on the “free” Facebook.

Sounds great. Right? Why not switch to this novel identity paradigm as of next week.

As always human nature comes in the way.

Culture Block

Most people trust the current bureaucracies. Be it banks, law firms, notaries, or governmental organizations. Familiar feels safe, trusted, while the new is always slowly ushered in requiring a long period of time before it is finally accepted. That is not something we can fix, this is human nature. If you’ve known something for years, it seems as if it was always there. We need to acknowledge that rather than fight it. Which calls for a transition plan as opposed to a revolution.

To devise a plan one needs to predefine what are the main pain points. What are the concerns regular people would raise once this new format is suggested. The first would most surely be security. If I am about to put my most private data online I must be absolutely sure no one would be able to use it without my explicit consent, nor hack it stealing and possibly ransoming me for it.

Wearing the technologist hat I would respond to such a challenge designing a distributed system where your data is dispersed on multiple servers as tiny little snippets, each of which meaningless by itself, providing some method for you to collect the pieces based on some secret known only to you. In layman terms it’s like an adolescent putting his personal diary through a shredder hiding the pieces of paper in various places known only to him alongside a codebook allowing him to find them, and rejoin them when he so wishes.

As elegant as that may seem technologically it is utterly meaningless to most people. Try telling an ordinary Joe about this distributed system which is of course mathematically robust and keeps his data far more secure and under his control than it currently is, and you are sure to get a glazed look.

People are simple and inert. It is only through applying fear or the promise of a considerable gain that they are inclined to make a change. If Joe has always known that a bank is the trusted place to put his money in, he’ll never listen to your blockchain lecture and how it is safer and more secure to use virtual currencies than regular banks. He does not care that his medical data is stored on servers maintained by IT groups that are usually not the best and finest, exposing his medical records to hackers not to say government. As far as Joe is concerned, they are the a trusted authority, simply because they were always there.

To overcome this hurdle we must draw a line from the current world to the future one. A path where established identity brokers and current roots of trust (banks, insurance companies, etc.) are endowing their mojo over emerging technologies that would later become the infrastructure on which UGI would be built. In a way we are asking the current bureaucracy to vouch for the newly introduced paradigm while digging its own grave.

And they are not going to gently go into that good night. They’d have to be forced.

But how do you force an entire industry to act contrary to its self preserving interest? The answer is you first use carrots, then sticks, in that exact order.

It is obvious that the spoils go the first mover. Be it international virtual currency, freight delivery or any service that is based on the existence of UGI. This prisoners’ dilemma is well understood by the current industries, which is why you see banks and stock exchanges starting to embrace virtual currencies, or large companies building blockchain based supply and delivery chains in order to rapidly ship goods overseas cutting down delivery time/cost and providing a better, simpler service.

All those new services would greatly benefit from the UGI paradigm, meaning they can be recruited as evangelists’ of interest showing the way to the rest of the industry that would either tag along or wither.

When NYSE parent company (ICE) launches a digital assets platform and a bitcoin futures product, they signal to the rest of the industry that virtual currencies are here to stay, and moreover, that those newly developed currencies are to be trusted. When Maersk and IBM launch a Blockchain shipping supply chain platform they tell the rest of the logistics industry this is the way to go, and by doing so put a kosher sign on blockchain technology.

The path would be long and not without setbacks, however it is clear that the old world is already acknowledging the substantial benefits provided by the new one.

But there’s yet another hurdle.

Leaky Buckets and Data Security

Let’s assume we have convinced the current beurachracy to move away from the old world and into the new. Let us also assume that the general public, swayed by those large commercial brands into trusting the new set of technologies has flocked to UGI, placing its trust in a global distributed system where all personal data is stored and maintained.

Is that data truly secured?

The answer is a categorical no. Even if the math is sound, the encryption keys unbreakable, and the underlying blockchain (or similar) is assured to be robust there is always the human factor. Be it a hacker that uses social engineering to assume someone’s identity, or the people who write the code implementing the above system that have foolishly exposed it to a buffer overflow attack. When enough effort is applied, no system is unbreakable.

Sounds like a showstopper. It’s not.

A Non-Perfect World

The thing is that currently you are no better off. It’s not like your personal data is not exposed to multiple unauthorized parties (it is a well known fact that good private investigator is able to retrieve most of your confidential financial data within 24 hours, sometimes less), nor is it fortified against payoffs to some low-income civil servant that would gladly sell your confidential records for a hefty sum.

The sad truth is that regardless whether you live under the current bureaucracy, or a newly formed UGI based one, once targeted and given enough time money and incentive your data would get into the wrong hands, at least it would be much harder, and mostly traceable.

It is a non-perfect world we live in, and you are never completely safe, but at least you’ll get your package sooner.