🎙 "Identity is The One Vulnerability Being Exploited Across All Systems. It’s the Mother of All Battles:" Santiago Siri
In this week’s podcast we interview Santiago Siri, who has been working on improving the way democracy works for over a decade. He started from the inside, co-founding a political party in Argentina, his home country, but realized traditional politics woul...
In this week’s podcast we interview Santiago Siri, who has been working on improving the way democracy works for over a decade. He started from the inside, co-founding a political party in Argentina, his home country, but realized traditional politics would change him before he could change politics. So he started building better representation for the new world and founded Democracy Earth Foundation. It’s worth noting, that he’s been hacked by communists two times in the process.
The Democracy Earth Foundation is developing a project called Proof-of-Humanity. Proof of humanity wants to crack the problem of identity in the decentralized era of web3 -- how to prove who you are without relying on centralized entities. Proof of humanity has been able to create 5,000 on-chain identities in two months. What’s more, all of those in the network are getting streamed UBI token, which stands for universal basic income.
The next step would be for applications in web3 to integrate these identities. The initial use cases in DeFi are pretty obvious, for one, lenders could integrate with proof of humanity to start offering undercollateralized loans. The goal is to give anyone in the world the power to take back their identities away from the web2 world and use them in a system they control.
The podcast was led by Camila Russo, and edited by Alp Gasimov. Transcript was edited by Owen Fernau and Dan Kahan.
🎙Listen to the interview in this week’s podcast episode here:
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Santiago Siri: So I'm from Argentina, that's where my accent comes from. I was a computer programmer since childhood, always interested in building systems. I began my career as a game developer, curious about games early on. And I found out about Bitcoin in 2011. I was already working with virtual currencies. Back then, I had a small project in 2009 that was called the Whuffie Bank and with their currency based on your social reputation in social media.
So because of that predating work to finding out about cryptocurrencies, I already had the antenna fine-tuned to be interested in the history of money. And several different aspects of that project took me to really jump into the Bitcoin bandwagon in the early days of the last decade. So I've been involved in this space for 10 years now. And it's been quite a roller coaster. I can definitely say that.
I got into politics in Argentina with a political party called Partido de la Red. And through that experience of connecting the world of politics with the world of technology, stuff like Bitcoin, and then stuff like Ethereum, became more and more relevant to the type of work that I've been doing since then. And in 2015, Y Combinator gave us a grant because of the work we've done with a political party, so we started Democracy Earth Foundation with their backing.
Throughout the last six years, we've been implementing democratic pilots around the world. I can claim that twice I’ve been hacked by communists by creating fake identities, so that's why identity is such an important problem of this puzzle. And in the last six months, it's been quite a roller coaster. We joined forces with Kleros and we launched Proof of Humanity. And here we are.
Democracies on the Blockchain
Camila Russo: Wow. Where to start that background, so interesting. I would love to hear more about this political party, what was it about and is it still alive? Are you still involved with that?
SS: I'm still involved with the former members. But politics is a very nasty environment. Partido de la Red, that was the name of the party, the Net party, was a very simple idea actually. It was just a party that would propose candidates for Congress that would vote on every bill according to the will of citizens online. So that meant we had to figure out what it means to create a political party, get signatures, run for an election in a country like Argentina, which is not a very friendly place for politics.
And at the same time we had to figure out what's the right technology. How do you build a digital democracy? How you guarantee the integrity of the vote, how you guarantee the privacy of the vote, all of these very interesting cryptographic and technical challenges. So the party ran for its first election in 2013. We got 1% of the votes, which is actually quite a lot for a new party. It's 22,000 votes in the city of Buenos Aires. We needed 3% to get someone in Congress, so it wasn't enough.
But because of the innovation that we were bringing to an environment where innovation is completely lacking, it was a really interesting project for outsiders in other countries, in other communities around the world, that took notice of what we did with Partido de la Red, and that brought us to do a global TED Talk which brought us into the international stage. And eventually, we got into Y Combinator which helped us focus on the technological side of things and start thinking about this problem in more global terms, because the status quo of politics is pretty much the same everywhere. It sucks.
“...we got into Y Combinator which helped us focus on the technological side of things and start thinking about this problem in more global terms, because the status quo of politics is pretty much the same everywhere. It sucks.”
CR: Yeah. So were you, back then, using blockchain as a means of verifying identity, and ensuring transparency in votes, or were you not there yet?
SS: No. At the beginning of the party, our original attempt was, well, let's make an open source technology so anyone can audit the code and see how it works. Obviously, it was a very naive approach, but it was the first step for us. Very soon, we found out that whoever controls the server, whoever controls the database, might delay certain people from registering and accelerate other people registering. And that fact alone can tumble an election. And we've seen that kind of behavior.
So with server-based architecture, right from the early pilots, it was clear that it is a huge risk on every election. Whoever controls the server, whoever controls the database, can control the outcome of an election.That's why you really cannot trust surveys on social media. Everything is very easy to manipulate if you have the backdoor keys to the technology.
“Whoever controls the server, whoever controls the database, can control the outcome of an election. That's why you really cannot trust surveys on social media. Everything is very easy to manipulate if you have the backdoor keys to the technology. ”
So I was interested in Bitcoin very early on. I tried to do some stuff with it. We actually did a very big pilot in Hong Kong that persisted the votes using Bitcoin transactions. And we used a Merkle Tree, we stored the Merkle root of the Merkle Tree in a Bitcoin transaction. It was a very nice implementation from a cryptographic angle. But in that shadow referendum, we did this in Hong Kong with the Umbrella Movement to elect a city measure, we got 800,000 participants on Telegram voting, and 600,000 of those came from a Chinese IP. So that was the second time the communist hacked me. And again, it was identity, a civil attack of sorts, right? A single identity pretending to be multiple identities. And it was one of those experiences where you start really understanding the nature of the problem that you're facing.
CR: That's so interesting. So what happened there was a hacker from China was able to create 600,000 different addresses on the Bitcoin network and vote?
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