Imagine a world where 40,000 screaming fans are packed shoulder to shoulder in a stadium where their favorite teams clash in head-to-head combat, and everyone knows that everyone else has been vaccinated against Covid-19. Businesses have opened their doors to something that resembles business as usual, only their employees have all proved their own vaccination, as has every customer who enters the building. That’s the world Civic Technologies is working to build, and the world the company today took a big step towards making real.
The San Francisco-based startup that raised $43 million in a 2017 initial coin offering, similar to an IPO, has formed a partnership with Circle Medical, a well-connected affiliate of UCSF Health, a San Francisco hospital, that will let employees prove to their employers the results of their most recent Covid-19 tests, and when a vaccine is developed, whether or not they’ve received it. Far from a theoretical blockchain application that might be of value at some future date, the app, which lets users prove a wide range of personal information, as well as spend bitcoin, ether, a version of the U.S. dollar issued on the ethereum blockchain, and Civic’s own token is available today on both Apple’s App Store and Google Play.
While such a concentration of private information in the hands of any government or company will almost certainly trigger cries of a dystopian invasion of privacy, Civic uses technology similar to bitcoin to prove that only one person is in control of the credential at a time without needing to share any unnecessary information about that individual. Not even who they are. “You don’t have to transmit your name, or anything like that,” says Vinny Lingham, 41, founder and CEO of Civic. “So you can walk into a stadium anonymously like you do today, but just prove that as you walk through the gates that you’d been vaccinated.”
Users download the app from either app store, create a 3D face map using a video recording, and verify email and phone number. They then upload a government issued identification which is verified using artificial intelligence and stored in the digital wallet. Unlike a traditional drivers license, users can prove their age without having to share other personally identifiable information such as address and weight. Similar to bitcoin, which is only in one place at a time, these IDs only exist on the user’s phone, and not even Civic has access to the information without the owner’s permission.
With more than 100,000 people signed up on the waiting list, the app, which quietly went live Monday has already been downloaded more than 12,000 times.
Instead of replacing existing credential providers, such as the U.S. Department of Motor Vehicles or healthcare companies, Civic scans existing documents and breaks them down into their component parts, giving users the ability to choose who has access to what information. In addition to ensuring third parties only see what they need, the users have the ability to retract credential access in compliance with Europe’s General Data Privacy Regulation and California’s Consumer Privacy Act designed to ensure the right to be forgotten. Specifically related to Covid-19 such digital identities reduce the risks of handling physical objects.
At the core of all this functionality is a network of ethereum smart contracts, or code designed to perform certain unstoppable tasks, when certain criteria are met. There are three types of counterparties on the ethereum-powered decentralized identity network. The user is the owner of the identity. The requester is a service like a vending machine or a building security service that needs the identifiable information. An agreed-upon fee paid for in Civic’s native token (CVC) is placed into an escrow account and the validator software scans the requester’s required personally identifiable information (for example, age or vaccine status). CVC now sells for $$0.0327, according to Messari, with a total market value of $29 million. If the user meets the criteria and the requester is satisfied access is granted and the fee in escrow is released. Thanks to cutting-edge mathematical breakthroughs called zero-knowledge proofs, not even the validator actually has the information, but just knows whether or not the requirement is met.
Once the identity wallet is created, users have the ability to scan QR codes to integrate existing accounts denominated in bitcoin, ethereum, CVC, and U.S. dollars converted to assets on the ethereum blockchain, called USDC. Over 1,000 beta users have used the wallet to spend the supported cryptocurrency. While bitcoin does 26 billion worth of volume a day, ethereum $10 billion a day and USDC $332 million a day most of that volume is widely recognized as from investors and speculators. Going forward Lingham expects that the ability to prove one’s identity and pay with assets issued on a blockchain will make it easier to spend cryptocurrency.
To help prevent the cryptocurrency industry’s pervasive issues with theft, Civic Wallet uses what’s called multi-signature (multi-sig) access. Not only does the user have a part of the key, but cryptocurrency security firm and custodian BitGo has a part of the key and Coincover has a part of the key. Coincover is insured by Lloyd’s of London underwriters, providing a private alternative to FDIC insurance for up to $1 million. “If you have up to a million dollars in your wallet,” says Lingham, “you lose your phone, you break your phone, you’re fleeing your country in some part of the world and your phone falls in the ocean, you will get your funds on the other side.”
San Francisco-based Circle Medical doesn’t currently have plans to accept cryptocurrency as payment. As of today however, employees of partner companies with 500 employees or more will be able to be tested for Covid-19 at a San Francisco Bay Area Circle Medical location, with new locations to be added in the future.
As part of the early testing, Civic partnered in 2018 with Anheuser-Busch Inbev, the makers of Budweiser, to sell beer from a vending machine to people who proved their age using an earlier version of the Civic Wallet. Last year they signed a deal with 12 companies to sell a wide range of age-restricted goods via vending machines. Civic is currently in conversations with healthcare companies and government agencies under terms of a non-disclosure agreement. Unspecified future retail uses of staking, where cryptocurrency is locked up in exchange for interest payments are currently in the works. “We’re exploring that very aggressively,” says Lingam.
Of course, proof-of-vaccine is just one example of how such a virtual identity could be used. Other early users include the above Anheuser-Busch project, Johnson Controls International (JCI), a $36 billion company using the tech to issue credentials for access to buildings, and Tyco Software, which is using that software on it’s own buildings. A Deloitte survey of 1,488 senior executives published today found that 63% viewed digital identity generally speaking will be “very important,” but in what is perhaps evidence of the obstacles in upgrading healthcare, only 9% saw the use case catching on specifically in the industry.
The founder and CEO of Circle Medical says that “traditionally, there’s been for good reason a kind of Chinese wall between employers and employee health data, and there’s not a lot of information, if any at all that tends to cross over from one side to the other.” He adds: “I think with Covid there is a real need on the part of the employer to be able to screen and assess Covid risk before they let people back into the workplace.”
The launch of Civic’s upgraded app comes amid influential calls by world leaders to launch just such a service—and accompanying outcries against the same. Earlier this year Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates released a plan for developing and implementing vaccines, which when coupled with unrelated earlier research into digital identity prompted a flurry of debunked conspiracy theories that he was planning to track humanity during its most intimate moments. Last week, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, once again entered the fray, calling for the creation of a digital identity that protected privacy, following on his own failed pet-project from when he was in power that would have created a centralized identity database, but faced similar backlash as Gates’ effort.
Lingham is no stranger to concerns that governments or companies could misuse such identity repositories, but believes his technology overcomes them. Born to Indian parents in apartheid-era South Africa Lingham says his own movement was largely controlled by the racist government, prohibiting him from entering many public spaces, with the notable exception of libraries, where he taught himself to code. While he supports the rights of people not to be vaccinated, he also argues that unlike race and other personally identifiable information his service could obscure, the ability to prove one’s vaccine status is a public interest.
“If you’re part of a society where the majority of the people want everyone to be vaccined, and you don’t want to be part of that society change countries,” says Lingham. “Move somewhere else.”
To give an idea of how far the use of these identities could go, a quick look at Circle Medical’s existing partners includes Blockchain 50 alum CVS Pharmacies, which is a leader in exploring how blockchain can be used in a wide range of healthcare applications. Health insurance giants Anthem, Aetna and Cigna all support Circle Medical, and are also exploring blockchain.
Competitors also looking into how blockchain could safely digitize identities, while making them nearly impossible to forge, include New York-based ConsenSys subsidiary Metamask, also built on the ethereum blockchain, the World Economic Forum’s Known Traveler Digital Identity platform using Hyperledger Aires, and the Sovrin Network, which helped develop Aires. The non-profit Linux Foundation helps run a digital identity consortium, the Trust Over Internet Protcocol (TOIP) with members including many of the above, and R3, a prominent leader in the blockchain space.
“The consortium helps answer the question: “How can we help decentralized identity technologies scale up and scale out to the needs of society, without burdening any single technology team with satisfying everyone’s diverse needs?” say Brian Behledorf, executive direction of Hyperledger. “TOIP aims to do this the same way the Internet itself scaled up and out, by defining layers of technology and governance to make it easier to see where and how organizations and individuals can cooperate.”