Nonprofit cryptocurrency advocacy group Coin Center has appealed to the community to develop tech-based responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that protect civil liberties and privacy.

In a post published on April 8, the center’s director of research, Peter Van Valkenburgh, surveyed recent proposals from the Zcash Foundation for Private Contact Tracing Protocols, as well as progress with Decentralized Identifiers by Microsoft Research.

“It's our duty as a community of technologists to be vigilant against the imposition of tracing and identity technologies that could, long term, jeopardize our autonomy and privacy,” Van Valkenburgh wrote.

Resisting state overreach

Coin Center warns against the pandemic response of the Chinese authorities, which solicits data on users of Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s WePay for use in the state’s contact tracing and immunity passporting. This same technology, it is claimed, is equally used for the surveillance of citizens’ behavior and a clampdown on dissidents’ freedoms. 

While South Korea, like China, has drawn on state-run GPS tracking and data harvesting that is mandatory for all citizens, Singapore has used a centralized directory of phones, implementing Bluetooth technology to track movements in real-time.

Van Valkenburgh draws an apparently hard-and-fast line between presumably open societies in the West and the examples he gives in Asia. Yet whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden have this week stepped in to warn of post-pandemic surveillance creep in the United States, likely to compound the intelligence agencies’ existing overreach throughout the 2010s.

Fit for purpose

Unlike all these approaches, blockchain protocols for decentralized and anonymized contact tracing can safeguard privacy and freedoms against governments or corporations. 

The Zcash Foundation, which is collaborating with projects such as the CEN Protocol (initiated by CoEpi and Covid-Watch) and DP-3T is calling on the community to jointly develop a shared, open protocol for privacy-preserving contact tracing that could be used on billions of user devices.

Meanwhile, a proof-of-immunity decentralized identity scheme would need to be significantly more complex than systems such as Bitcoin and could look to Decentralized Identifiers as a blueprint for a passporting tool that would offer meaningful control for individual users.

Cointelegraph has recently reported on blockchain platforms such as MiPasa, developed in partnership with Oracle and Microsoft, that are focusing efforts on solving the lack of integrated, verified data sources for coordinated responses to COVID-19.

Alongside decentralized identifiers, privacy-respecting tools such as zero-knowledge proofs have also been used by the blockchain security company Hacera to allow data to be shared between different entities without revealing sensitive medical information.