Blockchains and Human Rights

Agricultural workers in Asia, particularly those in Myanmar, earn only up to £1.96 per day during monsoon season, and up to £2.75 during dry season. How can tech help improve living wages, among other human rights initiatives?

Following a
human rights webinar with Innovation Forum, Provenance founder Jessi Baker and blockchain engineer Thibaut Schaeffer answer some questions regarding the potential of blockchain in safeguarding the fundamental rights of workers.

What exactly is blockchain?

It’s a very fancy database. So databases allow you to store and access information – from identity records to land rights. There’s some exciting differences between the databases of today that power our systems, and the promise of blockchains.

A key difference is that databases today are mostly centralised – as in there’s one big powerful owner or colluded group who acts as the system admin and guardian to the data. With blockchains, databases become decentralised – anyone can add and access data without needing a centralised authority to broker everything, yet due to some awesome computer science innovations data can still be trusted. Trust is brokered peer-to-peer.

No one can tamper with data in a blockchain. Its immutability is central to the reasons that it’s so trustworthy.

In 1996 web development was a whole new exciting thing that opened up global communication to staggering effect. Now, decentralised application development (aka developing on blockchains) is an exciting new development method – building on the internet to create a web of value.

Blockchains are an exciting new technology to enable data to be trusted without the need for third parties to broker large amounts of data. They favour grassroots, decentralised data exchanges, whilst remaining very secure. They allow for consensus about something without their needing an authority to oversee the data all the time.

How can companies use it for human rights issues?

Well, I just want to be clear that blockchains aren’t going to solve human rights issues – just like the Internet didn’t.

I think the interesting thing to discuss here is how can the digital/internet in general help with human rights issues and then I think it becomes clear why blockchains are going to be so important.

I often feel like discussions about the internet and human rights issues often includes notions like “transparency”, “global systems for identity”, “mobile reporting”, “increasing efficiency of getting cash and aid to the problem quickly” and motivated by the digital age – things like “the right to own your own data and control privacy”.

Talking about these ideas is where blockchains become cool, because they allow for the creation of massive systems for data exchange that don’t need a centralised authority to broker all the data. Essentially, with blockchains, we can create open registries about key data that can increase efficiency, interoperability and transparency when used to power systems.

Do these technologies truly represent a change of approach in company engagement with human rights?

To some extent, yes, as they enable organizations to move the consistency of data out of their own hands. In terms of accountability, this is a big step forward which enables mathematically proving that some piece of data has not been tampered with.


A tuna supplier in Ambon, Indonesia uses Provenance to receive a digital asset of skipjack tuna caught by IPNLF-certified fishermen in Asilulu.

Very recently, Provenance trailed blockchain technology to tackle slavery in the fishing industry – please could you expand on the case study to give context and where that’s at.  

Our tuna pilot used blockchains to track verified claims about the creation of a product as the product changes hands down the supply chain. The main problem we were solving is how to create a system for tracking a set of verified claims about something through a complex chain of custody – in order to avoid double spending of the claim without an authority needing to broker all the data in the supply chain.

This creates a “digital version” of the fish that contains verified claims such as location, catch method, certification and day of catch.

The digital fish can then be traded with the physical fish to guarantee the claims aren’t “double spent” and the premium these scare claims deserve is preserved, thus incentivising good behaviour until, one day, it’s the norm.

Decentralised trust systems can allow us to extend this idea and allow the crowd to verify certain data types, even sensors or other data gathering devices, to act as consensus mechanisms.

Surely the success of a blockchain is dependent on quality data, the ‘junk in – junk out’ has been cited as a potential problem with technology – how do you respond to the concerns being raised about the quality of data being into blockchain and how do you think this problem is best approached?

Definitely. However, you can add code to the blockchain to enable parties (either organisations or datasets) to verify key data going into the system – and reputation systems can be built around them too.

Are there any pilot case studies that are leading to significant improvements on the ground? Beyond the fishing in slavery context – what other applications can you see for blockchain in this field?

It’s still early days so mostly pilots (nothing significant in production, apart from Bitcoin itself that can bring financial inclusion – see BitPesa). Lots of ideas out there (e.g. Honduras land registry, etc). This has been mainly in fintech land since the beginning only 8 years ago.

Are technological solutions another ‘hands off’ type approach to engagement, a new generation of auditing?

For now, technology can’t replace auditing, but it can certainly make it easier for the resulting certifications to be digitally tracked as they pass through the supply chain – even where they are used online – to eradicate fraud and reduce the burden of chain of custody audits.

Given the access challenges for those at the end of the supply chain, is the role of technology in managing human rights risks overhyped?

We don’t think so. There’s Facebook and smartphones, among others.