Digital Emblems

Digital emblems are the 21st-century evolution of the sigils which indicate that people, places, or objects enjoy special protections under international law.

International law defines a number of emblems, such as the blue helmets of UN peacekeeping forces, the blue-and-white shield of UNESCO, and the Red Cross of the ICRC, as indicative of special protections. Similar protections attach to journalists who wear “Press” protective emblems on the battlefield. The emblems of national governments and intergovernmental organizations protect diplomatic pouches, couriers, and envoys. International shipments of protected artworks, endangered species of plants and animals, trademarked goods in danger of counterfeiting, and nuclear fuels and waste, all likewise enjoy special protections under international law.

However, the visual emblems which have traditionally been used to signal these protections have many deficiencies:

There are also less obvious ways in which they fail to serve modern needs:

Digital emblems address each of these deficiencies, through a set of global open standards which may be implemented without licensing fees or restrictions.

Each digital emblem consists of a set of records which are associated with a person, place, or object. They identify it, and communicate the nature of the protections it enjoys, and which body of international law defines those protections. Each digital emblem is signed with a cryptographic certificate that can be constrained in both the geographic and temporal scope of its validity. The authenticity of digital emblems can be evaluated using simple, publicly-documented algorithms, which are free for anyone to use, and can be built in to software like web browsers, which run on commonplace mobile telephones or computers, or more specialized hardware like cameras or handheld wireless scanners. Standards-based validation of digital emblems can vastly simplify the work of customs and immigrations agents, and can also be easily incorporated in military equipment and processes, to ensure that protected entities are not targeted by military actions. While nighttime may render a red cross painted on an ambulance invisible to a drone or loitering munition, the RFID transponder of a digital emblem can silently and efficiently ensure that it is not targeted.

Digital emblems can also protect diplomatic pouch shipments, diplomatic couriers, and diplomatic envoys, who are protected under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that they may not be stopped, delayed, or inspected. This creates the paradox that the validity of their credentials must be evaluated, yet doing so has historically compromised the very rights that are intended to be signaled. Diplomatic markings have also been misappropriated as cover for the smuggling of drugs and other contraband. Digital emblems, which can be validated instantaneously, at a distance, and without interrupting the subject, solve both of these problems, while streamlining and automating customs and immigrations processes.

Trademarked goods are protected under a wide range of international laws, including the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, the Madrid Protocol, and TRIPS. Customs officers can use the same standards-based scanner to distinguish authentic from counterfeit goods and maintain supply-chain security, as they use to establish the authenticity of diplomatic pouches that display a digital emblem.

Likewise, shipments of endangered plants and animals are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and the 1979 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and the 1997 Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, both administered by the IAEA, protect the transfer and storage of nuclear fuel and waste. These applications too can be served using the same standards-based scanning mechanisms.

Digital emblems are managed by their respective assigning authorities, and can be created in as many specific instances as needed, without incurring additional cost. The authority to create and apply digital emblems can be delegated if necessary. Emblems can be managed in hierarchies. For instance, the ICRC might manage emblems assigned to ambulances separately from emblems marking fixed facilities like hospitals and supply depots, or separately from emblems protecting diplomatic-pouch shipments of medical supplies. Likewise, emblems protecting people might be managed in very different ways, by different administrative bodies, than emblems protecting web sites.

Digital emblems are currently being standardized within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the global standards body for communications protocols, ensuring that all parties have free and open access to the information and tools necessary to implement them. We expect implementations to move from the pilot stage to full operational stage by the end of the third quarter of 2024. Parties interested in participating in pilot implementation are welcome to contact us at dem@pch.net.