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Self-Sovereign Identity & the next generation of digital life

Opinions  •  
Apr 07, 2018
 • logged_by: Sean

Since the early days of the web, digital identity has been a common area of concern, one that has until only recently eluded a common solution. Each platform and service on the internet has had to come up with its own way of managing identity. Nowadays we are accustomed to setting up user accounts individually for each service, thereby creating multiple identities stored all over the web. It’s come to the point that we don’t think twice about creating accounts — we just do it to get to the good stuff.

The situation has reached a critical stage, especially in terms of privacy and data management. These days it is not unusual for any regular internet user to accumulate 300+ unique sets of usernames, passwords, and other login data in the course of exploring the web. This arrangement not only makes keeping track of digital identities a nightmare, but users end up storing information about themselves all over the world for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s a clear example of the downsides to using closed-off approaches and centralized architecture for digital identity management.

The merits of open source

If we envision a future in which individuals truly own and control their identity, the most decisive development will undoubtedly concern the comprehensive adoption of a blueprint for self-sovereign identity management. And for the next generation of identity management to take shape, a common set of open-source protocols must be established. In other words, to realize a world where individuals, not third parties, control their own data requires everyone adhere to the same set of open standards.

This vision might seem ambitious or even far-fetched, but consider the early days of the internet and email. In the late 1980s Tim Berners Lee and his team at CERN initiated the development of HTTP protocol for inter-network data communication, work that still serves as a bedrock for what we now know as the internet. Around the same time, the practical need for a mechanism to facilitate communication of electronic messages between networked computers running on different systems led to SMTP protocol, a crucial element of how email works today. We are able to use different browsers and email clients interchangeably only because they are built on top of open, standard protocols. If we visit a website or send an email, such standards ensure that things work well together; open protocols enable a high degree of interoperability across networks.

Common guidelines like these are incredibly powerful as they make up the foundation of everything subsequently built on top. In the case of HTTP and SMTP, entire industries have emerged even though no single individual, group, or party directly monetizes or controls the underlying protocols. Perhaps it is in virtue of these open-source approaches that such market innovation has even been possible.

While one might question whether building on open-source protocols makes for a poor business model, we at Jolocom believe stewarding open standards is essential to successful and sustainable enterprise. In a zero-marginal cost environment (of digital products and services), artificial boundaries of interaction tend to engender a competitive disadvantage and inevitably encounter disruption by more efficient approaches. Ultimately, digital goods and services will be provided and exchanged at almost no cost. A truly innovative business model is thus one that adds value on top of a standardized and open-source protocol.

Shaping products according to this model will immediately show whether you generate real value rather than artificial barriers, i.e. if your product fosters authentic growth or causes unnecessary friction. Building and maintaining a walled garden might be beneficial in the short run, but open protocols will deliver comparable functionality at lower cost and will ultimately out-compete closed business models. This characteristic, so anchored in the commons, is what makes open-source protocols more resilient and sustainable, ensuring that innovative technology can hit the market without artificial barriers and immediately begin to serve the people.

Toward an open standard for identity

Formed in May 2017 to foster a unified, open-source decentralized identity ecosystem for people, organizations, applications, and devices via a collaborative effort of industry leaders & market verticals, the Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF) and its members — including Microsoft, IBM, BigchainDB, and now Jolocom — all share the belief that identity is composed of a deeply personal collection of data that defines us, and that your identity should answer to no one but you.

The foundation’s work aims to enable registration of self-sovereign identifiers that no provider owns or controls, to make possible the ability to search and locate identifiers and data across decentralized systems, to provide a mechanism for users to securely store sensitive identity data, and to enable them to precisely control what is shared with others. In such an environment, individual users would wield exhaustive control over their digital identity via a system of blockchain IDs linked to zero-trust datastores that are universally discoverable.

Jolocom will focus on how people, devices, and other entities in the world are identified in lieu of a centrally-owned registry which DIF seeks to address by developing specifications, protocols, formats, and implementations for cross-chain rooting, indexing, and resolution of decentralized identifiers and names.

Rather than simply putting users in the “middle” of the process of identity management under a “user-centric” model (which leads to a false sense of control in users as platforms request they consent to or opt-out of specific and often vague uses of their individual, private data), contributions to a self-sovereign identity future truly empower individual users by giving them sovereign authority over their digital identities. No longer will users have to trust each and every individual platform they use to act in accordance with their preferences as related to the usage of their private data. Instead, users will be able to decide how their private data is accessed and used, returning control over one’s identity to the individual.

The Next Generation of Digital Life

While ambitious, it’s thanks to publicly accessible, open-source protocols like those championed by Jolocom, Decentralized Identity Foundation, and other projects working in this space that we are able to enjoy the smooth & reliable online experience we are familiar with today. The next generation of digital life will only be possible if we agree on open, standard solutions to use moving forward, especially when it comes to our digital identities. Standards might not be sexy, but taking the time to build a sustainable infrastructure is a necessary step, and one that benefits everyone.