By Valeria Grekova
July 18th, 2018

Blockchain for human rights: interview with Elisaveta Vereshagina

It is raining in Moscow, as we meet with one of the most daring human rights activists in Russia Elisaveta Vereshagina over a cup of coffee near the Tretyakov Gallery.

She fights for political prisoners (in particular, historian Dmitriev), arranges free lectures on human rights and stands for commemorating those repressed during the Communist era. She has also worked in one of the first Russian crypto media and held several meetups. How does one person manage all that? Call it a mystery.

We talked about crypto and blockchain from the point of view of a public activist, Telegram ban in Russia and much more.

Future Times: You graduated from the Faculty of International Relations.How did you get into the blockchain industry? 

Elisaveta Vereshagina: I discovered crypto somewhere in 2013. My friends who worked in banking told me about it – they spoke about bitcoin with delight and excitement. This immediately caught my eye – not in the financial side of it, but in the idea of people are able to issue financial units without a third party or state permission. One day when my friends reposted my CV, and I was contacted by a man dissertating at Harvard. He asked if I spoke English, and said: “Come join us, we are a good crypto team working from Oxford, Bulgaria and Riga”.

I felt it would be difficult. I had some basic knowledge of the economics, as I had written a few analytical papers on finance before, but it hardly seemed enough at that time. Still, I accepted the challenge and immediately joined in.

What fascinated me from the very beginning was the social impact the cryptocurrencies could produce. For instance, crypto allowed people to care less about jurisdiction. Virtual currency can be used even where there are no banks at all. Take the example of Rwanda: most of its citizens are unbanked but they do have their mobile phones (it’s XXI century after all). Thus, digital currencies help them integrate into the economy. The same goes for migrants: people who can not register officially for some reason or another (usually not by their own fault but due to the states’ rigidity) are now able to transfer money to their families abroad in just a few seconds, thanks to the crypto wallets. This social aspect spoke to me.

Stepping into the blockchain media, I integrated into the Moscow blockchain community. I even prepared an analytical note for the Russian PM Medvedev on regulating blockchain and cryptocurrencies with my first editorial team back in 2015 [laughs].

Elisaveta (on the right), source: InLiberty

Stepping into the crypto media, I soon became a part of the blockchain community (it was around 2015). And then, back in 2015, I prepared an analytical note for [Russian premier minister] Dmitry Medvedev on regulating blockchain and cryptocurrencies with my first editorial team.

FT: Did the Russian government at the time had any idea what it was?

EVThey did ask: “Is it allowed and used anywhere on Earth under a state law? Can it serve as a boon to the country, or should we ban it immediately?” They heard the song and got it wrong. Just as Durov joked after the Telegram ban: “Why not ban words? Words are often used by terrorists to communicate, they say.”

Marvelous, isn’t it?

FT: Continuing the Durov and the Telegram ban story… What do you think, are decentralized economy, cool IT projects & blockchain products possible in today’s authoritarian Russia?

EV: I’m trying to see everything from a different, non-state perspective.

No doubt that the information war is ongoing. What has been important to me is that global blockchain community has always remained more or less united. What I mean is that, unlike politicians or human rights activists, the crypto community has never been splited that much over the national issues. You know, blockchain enthusiasts have been working together even when their countries were at war or at the edge of war. Either the community is too pragmatic, or too idealistic…

FT: Probably now there are more pragmatic ones in the crypto community. Idealists are leaving.

EV: The things is, the whole concept was created by cyberpunks, people who originally advocated for a non-state structure. They stood for privacy meaning against wiretapping and lurking, trying to create a parallel universe with no violence and state arbitrariness. Cooperating with the like-minded regardless of their nationality, was a true honor for the gang. I actually subscribe to the idea of blockchain going in this “state-regardless” direction. However, it is hardly likely nowadays, as the technology is more and more used by states and corporations in their commercial and political interests.

In a 2015 interview, the head of SWIFT claimed that as soon as the technology skyrocketed, they would search for the ways to deal with it. The head of the Russian Investigative Committee put it differently: if bitcoin had not been banned, he said, the competitiveness of the ruble was likely to decrease. I believe he did not understand quite clearly what he was saying, neither did fellow officials, otherwise he would have been fired for questioning the compatibility of the national currency, which was quite obviously far from “patriotic”. Well, just a little bit [laughs].

Coming back to the “authoritarian Russia” of today. By 2018, the government has indeed taken quite a lot of tough measures, including the infamous ban of the Telegram messenger after its owners’ refusal to provide the security services with access to the users’ accounts. The very fact that special services officially demand access to every citizen’s correspondence is a direct violation of human rights law. That’s complete nonsense! But they believe they have a right to it. Just… Just “because they can.”

Thus, now it is purely impossible to predict how blockchain technology will develop in Russia. A few years ago, one ministry could advocate for crypto ban, while some other would praise it, suggesting to switch to blockchain literally each and every thing. A lot of people in our country have been fighting for crypto legalization because they believe it is about freedom, dignity, and progress. But now the window of freedom is narrowing.

FT: You were a part of one of the first Russian cryptomedia [Coinfox] legendary team. Tell us about the development aspect of this industry.

EVWell, we launched our first meetups in early 2016. At the beginning, there were just a few people from the Moscow blockchain community, mostly, you know, “geeks” who did not know well how to communicate and were afraid of public speaking. They didn’t have it in them: the basic evangelist function.

A few months earlier, in Autumn 2015, we presented a wallet app at the Moscow Exhibition of Economic Achievements, and I met an American blockchain-evangelist whose values were close to mine. She came to crypto from charity and now was travelling the world speaking to people about blockchain. There is no such profession as “evangelist”, at least in Russia, so it usually sounds like we do nothing: just randomly chatting here and there. Though it is an important job, a job of the future, they call it, – to unify people online and help them meet offline, creating for them a space of shared goals and values, guiding the conversation.

FT: Recently, on your social media you posted about the option to transfer records (including the information about the burials) of those repressed during Stalin’s reign to blockchain. Is this possible? How do you see the use of blockchain for the “historical memory preservation” part of human rights?

EV: My friend and I recently discussed the issue of “the right to be forgotten”, that Google made possible by allowing user to delete any request. He said an interesting thing, as if it’s a step aside, just like George Orwell’s “1984” – you can edit information after the fact turning it in your favor. Blockchain prevents exactly that – you can not change anything. This is a great way to preserve memory. In this sense, blockchain is for the truth advocates.

Some time ago registering births on blockchain seemed strange to me, but now I get the point. Once a regime or any other force tries to erase all the information on a person from all the available sources (just like they did under the totalitarian rule, marking out the faces and, what we would now call “photoshopping”, the “undesirable” people away from articles and photographs), they simply can’t. Thanks to blockchain, it is impossible to “delete” a person from all historical records as if they were never born, just like it has been possible for decades in the totalitarian states.

And the information concerning repressions… This data often lacks proper verification. For instance, the 1950s KGB issued fake documents stating “your grandmother died of pneumonia in a camp in 1943”, while in reality she had been sentenced to death in the late 1930s.

All information was restored very haphazardly. Of course, except those cases, when someone famous was confirmed to have participated in anti-Soviet activities.

Elisaveta (on the right) – working on Dmitriev case in Petrozavodsk, Karelia, source: Facebook

FT: Which part of this data has not been disclosed by the security services?

EV: Since it is classified, we can only suggest. But I believe the part is huge. Interestingly, the facts on repressions are not kept in such a great secrecy as the victims’ burial places. The KGB never said: “here are the mass graves, come and commemorate the people we’ve killed back in XX century.” The burial places are searched for by enthusiasts following locals stories, with babushkas saying “there is a strange forest surrounded by a fence, which was guarded by the military until the USSR collapsed, and no one knows exactly what the forest hides but everyone believes it’s a frightful place to go…”

But let’s return to blockchain: on the one hand, transferring data on burial places to a huge base where no information can be edited might lead to stuffing the database with fakes; on the other hand, we could track back the issue date of any chosen document, so it might be useful.

FT: It would rather be activists, researchers and historians experiment rather than the state one: sort of an archaeological blockchain, to track where all the graves were found and the state of the research. Is it possible to find people who can do this?

Elisaveta: Practice shows that there are IT people who don’t really want to go into details, but they do professional work, sometimes even for free. You can always try to find a blockchain activist who is ready to contribute.

FT: What development connected problems would you point out in the community?

EV: A lot of amateurs, especially when it comes to ICO. Everyone and their mother were opening startups. Only a few idealists were left and even they stayed pretty much silent.

I was once in a very well-known institute attending a startups presentation event, when I realized that none of them were socially oriented. Everyone just wants to get more money – and as a social activist, it saddens me.

FT: In general what ICO you could invest in yourself?

EV: I fell in love with one project I wanted to invest in – SolarDao. It was a solar panels market pioneer with ICO, where you were supposedly investing in their solar energy system. They did an amazing 50-page industry analytics – seriously interesting to read, you could see their professional work, they were well versed in this matter. Moreover, they really stuck out on ecological / futuristic terms because they offered real solutions.

FT: Solar energy sounds quite great. And what about the artificial intelligence? You had an article saying that artificial intelligence can solve police brutality problems by analyzing video recordings from police stations / detentions in automatic mode and detecting violations. Can you please elaborate?

EV: Yes, but again I came to the conclusion that technology is a tool and it can be used in a way to help people or spread total control over them. If the technology in question, for example, gets replicated, we’ll get an ideal tracking system – and the AI will be able to watch over you 24/7, just as at previous stage it would have controlled the police.

We have been talking for a long time – about the protection of human rights, the country and much more. As we spoke, the rain stopped, and the sky above Moscow is finally clear.