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Blockchain to change the way VFS Global processes visa applications

Blockchain to change the way VFS Global processes visa applications
VFS Global privacy and group data protection officer Barry Cook
2 Apr, 2019

International visa-facilitation firm VFS Global is looking at using blockchain technology at a massive scale for visa processing, its privacy and group data protection officer Barry Cook told TechCircle.

The new encryption technology, which is now being piloted by the outsourcing firm, will make sure that the visa issued for the purpose is being used only to that end and is not being forged at any stage, Cook said.

The Dubai-based company, which clocked $500 million revenue in 2017, is increasingly coming up with value-added products like document-attestation services and concierge services to increase its turnover, which will use blockchain technology to ensure that nobody in the value chain can forge any data. VFS Global has so far processed over 194 million visa applications since its inception in 2001.

"This is for an individual to ensure that if the document is presented for any third-party services like a job application or visa application, it is genuine and has not been forged since the time of issue. This will ensure a higher level of success for visa applications," Cook said.

Individuals who graduate can buy a digital wallet from VFS Global and the certificate will be entered into that wallet and will be digitally signed by the issuing authority and will go into the blockchain on the cloud. VFS Global is also tying up with a lot of educational institutions to bring them on the platform as well as with visa-issuing authorities.

"We are trying to be a bridge or backbone between the authorities involved and can, hence, speed up the whole process. So if there is any change in the time of issue, there will be dissimilarity, which we can detect. It is a fairly new product and, hence, we don't have data yet on the success rate for people availing these services as against those who don't, but this will indeed increase the credibility," Cook explained.

He added that VFS Global would look to scaling up the current use case first before expanding the use of blockchain for other services. According to him, as more and more countries are issuing visas online, blockchain is expected to play a huge role in the visa-processing business.

The company that was founded in Mumbai by Zubin Karkaria, then the chief operating officer of Kuoni India, is today headquartered in Dubai, and has virtually a monopoly in visa outsourcing work in most of the countries it operates in. VFS Global has operations across 144 countries and has more than 3,000 visa-processing offices. Most of its product development team sits in Mumbai and London.

While the company started as a subsidiary of the tour operator Kuoni, today Stockholm-based private equity firm EQT holds a majority stake while Swiss-based Kuoni and Hugentobler Foundation also have stakes in VFS Global. The company, which first offered the visa-outsourcing services to the US embassy in India, soon saw major countries/blocs like the UK and European Union (EU) signing up for its services. 

VFS Global, which has around 9,000 employees, does not store any of the customer data for more than 24 hours after the information has been collected and sent to the local consulate or embassy of the respective country by the end of the day. Hence, Cook is not worried about the data-localisation regulations in India or elsewhere.

"The role is to ensure that we follow the data-protection laws of every country we operate in, which is 144 countries and to follow all that is a cumbersome process," Cook said. Hence, VFS Global has created a framework based on European data privacy and protection law, which Cook reckoned as the strictest and most robust regulation. 

"So I adopt one policy that I know will be sufficient for all of the countries. Now, having done that, I can't ignore the laws and the countries we operate in. So what we'll do is when we're operating, I'll put in place the standard framework, but then enhance it with any particular requirements of the law," Cook added.

VFS Global is also providing its customers, which are the government authorities, with data on the growth of visa applications from a particular city. The suggestions based on analytics often help the governments in carrying out tourism promotion or even to come to a decision on whether to open another consulate in a particular city.

"For instance, how many people from northern India go to Canada or how many people from Bengaluru region go to EU and the like," Cook said. However, the data it uses is anonymised with no specific passport information available to the company. VFS Global is also exploring implementing artificial intelligence (AI) for its new products under development but Cook preferred to keep it under the wraps as it is still being developed.