Digital Identity Series: An Introduction to the Future of Digital Identity
From the moment we are born, we are given an identity and this identify defines us and how we interact with our world throughout the course of our lives. Your name, your birth certificate, a driver’s license all are ways in which others can prove you are uniquely you and no one else. Before boarding a plane, you are asked to display your passport at the security check. When voting in an election, you must show a valid ID card. When making a payment with a credit card, you swipe your card with your name on it and input a pin or sign a receipt. Even when you are having a meal with friends, they know you are you because you are sitting right in front of them! It’s hard to imagine how our world would work without something so essential as identity.
In the digital space, identity verification is not so easy as it is in the physical world. Traditional methods of verification rely heavily on you being present with your ID. Online, there is no way to prove you are there. As a result, many sites online use passwords, email, usernames and supporting documents like credit cards to make sure you have some form of identification for the site you are on. But with each new site, you again must create a new username, with a new password and new information all over again. In a way, online, we do not have just one identity, but many, yet most don’t even know it’s actually you.
As our lives move more and more online, many of exiting methods of identification fail to meet people’s growing demand for privacy and control over the use of their personal identifiable information. This concept of possessing control over our digital and physical identity is called self-sovereign identity (SSI), meaning that we are the rulers of our own identity, online and offline. Rather than governed by a website, a company or a government, self-sovereign identity systems are decentralized, and offer interoperable identities across multiple platforms. In addition, when personal information is aggregated in a centralized system, it also becomes more prone to hacking attacks. Therefore, to combat security issues and address people’s needs for SSI, the industry has called for new digital identity methods.
Blockchain has been seen as a promising technology for digital self-sovereign identity as it enables secure and trusted ownership of data without the need for a third-party intermediary. Since blockchain does not require a central data store, it presents unique solutions to digital identity challenges. One primary solution for SSI is by generating a secure encrypted digital hub where individuals can store their identity credentials and have control access to it. As a result, blockchain could bring a handful of benefits, including: 1) Trust resulted from its lack of centralized control over records and execution of smart contracts; 2) Verifiability due to its immutable record storage of public keys and digital signature; 3) Efficiency as a result of eliminating intermediaries and increased automation.
But what does blockchain-enabled digital identity mean for individuals, as well as for companies and governments? In a traditional case, governments are usually the verifier and guarantor of an individual’s identity by issuing passports, identity cards, etc to track and verify state-individual and company-individual interactions. In the online world, individuals’ identity is usually guaranteed by various services, such as Facebook account, Google account etc. This is referred as user-centric identity, meaning that consent from users is fundamental and users have more control over their identity than before. However, there still exists central authorities like governments and social media companies as the only choice of provider.
But with blockchain in place, individuals now have the possibility to be central to the administration of their identity and are able to use a universal identity across multiple platforms. Such transformation from user-centric to user autonomy will inevitably affect the way governments function and companies conduct business. Therefore, it becomes critical for both policymakers and corporations to rethink their operation and business models.
Over the next three weeks, we will explore the topic of blockchain-enabled digital identity from the perspectives of personal, corporate and governmental identities. We will discuss questions like: How do you verify you are who you say you are online? What roles do governments play in this new world of identity management? How does blockchain-enabled digital identity impact the business models of companies?
Allen, C., & Allen, C. (2016, May 01). The Path to Self-Sovereign Identity. Retrieved from https://www.coindesk.com/path-self-sovereign-identity
Rivera, R., Robledo, J. G., Larios, V. M., & Avalos, J. M. (2017). How digital identity on blockchain can contribute in a smart city environment. 2017 International Smart Cities Conference (ISC2). doi:10.1109/isc2.2017.8090839
Third, A., Quick,, K., Bachler, M., & Domingue, J. (2018). Government services and digital identity. Knowledge Media Institute of the Open University. Retrieved from https://www.eublockchainforum.eu/sites/default/files/research-paper/20180801_government_services_and_digital_identity.pdf.