Distributed ledger tech provider R3 says it’s providing pension firms with the technology to build new blockchain-based identity solutions that could help savers reclaim some of the $48 billion in lost U.K. pension pots.

According to Abbas Ali, the head of the New York firm’s digital identity unit, pension providers will be releasing their own solutions that leverage the R3 tech throughout 2020.

More than 33 million people in the U.K. have a pension. But in a study by advice firm Profile Pensions this year, 24 percent of respondents said they had likely lost track of one of their pensions.

Estimating that there are more than 1.6 million lost pension pots nationwide, each with an average value of £23,000, the study concluded there could be as much as £37 billion (approximately US$47.8 billion) worth of unclaimed pensions in the U.K. alone.

This isn’t just a British problem. The Australian Tax Office estimated that $17.5 billion AUD ($11.3 billion) lay in unclaimed pension pots in 2017–2018. In 2013, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) said there was more than $58 billion in unclaimed pensions in the U.S.

In R3’s view, the problem boils down to identity.

“One of the biggest and most costly exercises in pension funds is identifying the user … and verifying each year that the user is still alive and entitled to these funds and managing the process,” Ali said.

Many pension providers have little option but to verify pension holders’ identities by mailing documents to their last known address or even requesting holders present themselves for registration, he said.

As a verification system, it’s full of holes. Through ill-health, commitments or distance, many people won’t be able to show up at an office so easily. Some are simply no-shows. If users fail to disclose a forwarding address, the pension provider may have lost its only way of contacting them.

Putting users in control

Blockchain could create a whole new dynamic, Ali said.

“We’ve built digital identity platforms with a couple of partners that are global,” he said. “We’re actually working with tech partners, the likes of Gemalto [part of the Thales Group, one of the largest identity management companies in the world], who actually are members of government-organized pension funds.”

In the legacy system, people have to create identity profiles for each and every pension scheme they sign up to over the course of their working lives. By using blockchain, people could create a single identity profile, with verifiable information like passports and driving licenses, that they themselves hold and share with their pension providers, according to R3.

“The blockchain angle essentially gives users control over their digital identity … instead of a third party providing a service, a blockchain network could potentially mean citizens are in control of their identity and organizations including government departments would exist on the network and users would be able to selectively disclose parts of their identity as needed,” Ali said.

R3’s Corda blockchain has already been used to create identity management systems. Software company Persistent launched a self-sovereign identity solution on Corda that allows users to create and manage their own identities. Another company, Cordentity, offers identity management that can be integrated into enterprise blockchain Hyperledger.

However, pension pot administration “is definitely one of the use cases where we can find the most economic value,” Ali said. It is already being used by pensions startup GROW Super, which helps Australians recover missing workplace pensions.

The idea is also gaining traction in government departments. In September 2019, the German government said it would launch a pilot project for a blockchain-based digital identity sometime in the future.

Why a blockchain?

But while many experts recognize the usefulness of a standardized digital identity profile, some have expressed skepticism over why it should use blockchain.

David Birch, director at electronic transactions consultancy firm Consult Hyperion, said it was not “transparently obvious” what value blockchain really adds. A centralized database, in his opinion, would function just as well at allowing users to share their digital identities.

“Does it make a difference to these verifiable identities that they are stored on a distributed ledger? I don’t think it does,” Birch said.

The only difference is blockchain makes users responsible for maintaining their own identities, Birch said. But many would probably prefer a regulated third party to handle their profiles for them.

That many blockchain-based identity management systems did not have an answer for how to deal with lost private keys presented yet another danger, he added.

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