Home Sci/Tech The Power, Promise, and Challenge of Digital Identity

The Power, Promise, and Challenge of Digital Identity

26 min read

If your residence burned down today, and along with it all of your identification, personal documents and electronics such as computers and smart phone — — would you be able to prove who you are? If someone stole your identity on Facebook, opened bank accounts halfway around the world — could you prove that the interloper is not you?

Identity is something we all possess — we’re born with — but provable identity is something else altogether. While our neighbors and colleagues, family and friends can vouchsafe for who we are, this bears no official weight— and an officially approved identification i.e. one provided by the state — is what is required when we need government services (e.g. healthcare, housing or food assistance) to cross borders, open bank accounts or credit cards, and vote.

According to the World Bank[1], fully fifteen percent of the world population — more than one billion people — still lack a valid form of identification. This lack of a formal ID shackles an individual’s opportunities in a multitude of ways. For refugees, it creates difficulty crossing borders and makes prospective host nations suspicious of them because they have no way to prove who they were back home. This is not just an issue for refugees and undeveloped countries: even in developed nations, lack of formal ID can prevent people from voting, opening bank accounts, securing a loan, and much more. According to the NYU Brennan Center for Justice, more than three million Americans do not own a government-issued picture ID.

The scope of the problem is such that the United Nations and World Bank ID4D (Identification for Development) initiatives have set a goal of providing everyone on the planet with a legal ID by 2030.

Digital technology can provide a solution to this ‘crisis of identity’, particularly systems based in blockchain technology with its global and censorship-resistant nature that enables a bottom up system of digital identity, eliminating the potential for fraud (i.e. replicants, sybils, duplicate or false IDs). Blockchains enable identity systems that promote social and economic inclusion and support UN sustainable development outcomes.

At Democracy Earth we consider identification critical to providing individuals with better access to economic and political opportunity, and specifically in order to allow individuals to participate in digital voting on a local to global scale.

The Problem

The fact that more than one billion people lack a valid form of identification (a figure that does not account for the world’s 200+ million migrants, 21.3 million refugees, or 10 million stateless persons) exposes a deep flaw with how we receive identification in the first place. It is a systemic flaw that violates human rights, since access to basic human rights such as election representation, justice, health and education are dependent on being able to provide a valid form of identification.

Lack of identity is more than just an access issue — it traps people in cycles of poverty by preventing them from participating in the economy. For example, among the two billion adults who do not use formal banking or financial services, one in five are excluded due to their lack of an institutionally approved identity.

Even within a functioning democracy, a lack of state-approved identity limits access to democratic institutions: the example of Ruthelle Frank, the the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in Wisconsin by the American Civil Liberties Union, is a case in point. Frank — in her 80s, having voted her entire life — was denied the vote when she could not meet a new requirement for a state-issued photo identification. When Frank went to get a state-issued identification, her baptismal certificate was rejected as an invalid substitute for a hospital-issued birth certificate (like many at the turn of the century, Frank was born at home). After voting all of her life, and even serving on her village board, Frank died having been stripped of her right to vote.

In the US alone, millions like Frank, similarly unable to meet onerous ID requirements, will have no agency over the politics that will determine their future. Without an ID, an individual quickly becomes marginalised from modern life and the safety nets of society.

Land vs. Cloud

Under current international law, an individual only exists as a legal person if he or she has been given that status by a state. This makes human rights dependent and deeply interwoven with citizenship status, which is linked to the physical territory in which one is born. That is changing, thanks to the internet. As Pia Mancini noted in her keynote at the Personal Democracy Forum (New York: June 2018), twenty-first century citizens are witnessing a battle between the Land and the Cloud. Today’s internet corporations (Google, Facebook) are challenging the nation-state monopoly on providing an identity.

Besides excluding refugees, migrants and stateless people, physical ID issued by a nation state has significant limitations for use outside the issuing country. For example, many countries do not accept the driver’s licenses of other countries and require individuals to get re-certified. As well, physical IDs have always posed a risk to personal privacy, forcing individuals to reveal more data than is required in an individual transaction. For example, a driver’s license to prove one is of legal age to purchase alcohol has the unintended side effect of enforced privacy violation, requiring one to simultaneously reveal a home address.

Paper and plastic are also easily forged, with few among us able to both instantly and reliably spot a fake. Clearly, this model is outdated and inadequate — especially in the age of modern cryptography.

The time is long overdue for a new ID system. In the past, there was no replacement for the trusted services of government for keeping registries such as identification rosters and voting rolls. This is no longer the case. The rise of new technologies such as smartphones and distributed public ledgers (blockchains) is helping reorganize trust, flowing away from centralized governments or institutions, instead distributing across networks of people, organisations and intelligent machines.

The Sacramento Bee

The Digital ID Challenge

Identity centered around paper and plastic credentials works fine for those fortunate enough to have them; the same arrangement has been much harder to duplicate online. Online identity has suffered from five major problems:

  • Proximity: Because we are not interacting with people physically, our traditional means of knowing who we’re dealing with do not work online, opening the way for sybil attacks (i.e. a single real-world entity creating multiple online personas, or replicants, to gain some advantage/produce an appearance of greater numbers.
  • Scalabilty: Digital ID currently relies on hubs of identity information — for example, logging onto a retail shopping site using online services such as Facebook or Google who have become de facto digital “identity providers”. However, despite the reach and ubiquity of corporate identity providers, many key online services do not utilize social API logins, resulting in fragmented copies of your identity information online and vulnerable to hackers.
  • Flexibility: The rigidity of most current identity systems means that when you choose to use the service you are forced to ‘volunteer’ non-material information the service may require — users are not able to selectively reveal or conceal facts at will and cannot use reputation or attestations from previously successful encounters as an indicator of trustworthiness.
  • Privacy: Shared identifiers such as browser cookies allow the accumulation and correlation of our personal information to be potentially used to create meta personal profiles leveraged by the state or corporations to restrict access to services and even movement, as in the case of China’s Social Credit Score program. Ongoing hacks (as seen in the case of Equifax, Yahoo and others) convincingly show that large centralized stores of personal information are not safe.
  • Consent: Identity systems rely on universal identifiers like email addresses, phone numbers and even Social Security Numbers that make it easy for third parties to correlate behavior and keep tabs on people without their permission. Third parties are incentivized by profit to continue making these correlations, making it unlikely they will discontinue the practice voluntarily. The owner of a particular identity also does not gain financially from the use of their information.

To address these issues, online identity must demonstrate two things about someone — that they are a real identity (i.e. human, not machine-generated), and they are a singular identity (i.e. not a replicant or fake). Proving that someone is real means showing that they are not a bot, an AI, or some other invented persona. Proving they are singular means showing that they are not a duplicate of a real identity — like someone stealing a picture and a name of someone who actually exists. Proving these things in the physical world is not too difficult, but online, proving these things is much trickier.

Online identity systems have garnered a lot of attention from national governments, but implemented with only varying degrees of success. Estonia has a fairly successful online identity system which allows citizens to do everything from pay parking tickets, access health data, and even vote online. This success is largely due to the fact that Estonia is using its own blockchain, meaning they are storing this data in a largely decentralized way.

Sorce: PayUMoney.com/Kinjal Shah

In contrast, India’s Aadhaar system stores the biometric information of over one billion people but does so in a centralized database. After it was shown that it was possible to buy someone’s data for less than $10 — and with an increasing number of private companies such as PayTm, Amazon and Facebook incorporating Aadhaar data into their products — many citizens fear that the system is not secure enough. The Aadhaar system now faces more than thirty legal challenges by petitioners, including violation of privacy and denial of guaranteed citizen rights.[4]

One of the core requirements of a functional identity system is the ability to verify credentials. In the past, this has led to centralized directories, which has led to centralized identity systems. Unfortunately, this centralization leads by definition to insecurity — a centralized system is only as trustworthy as the least trustworthy individual in the entire history of the system’s functioning.

The power of a digital ID system holds the potential to reshape our relations to governments, leading to more convenience for citizens and less bureaucratic costs for countries — the Boston Consulting Group estimates digital ID systems can save global taxpayer savings of up to $50 billion annually by 2020.[5] However, for a digital identity system to truly serve the individual, it cannot be owned or controlled by governments, organisations or companies prioritizing value extraction from users. This means that these ID systems need to be created on public blockchains, so that users can hold the keys to their own identity in a borderless, trustless ‘jurisdiction’.

Identifying the Solution

A blockchain-based decentralized identity system is personal, persistent, private, and portable by leveraging decentralization and cryptography in the jurisdiction of the internet. Because anyone can have access to this sort of identity and the resulting benefits without an intervening authority, it is called a “self-sovereign” identity.

With this new technology, attestations about your identity can be stored in a place that you control entirely, attached to a single blockchain address or digital wallet. Protocols to enable this are being tested and developed all over the world; in the effort to develop a system that avoids the pitfalls inherent to centralization, Democracy Earth’s own research into creating a self-sovereign ID system includes two human-centric concepts: Little Brothers and Attention Mining, which would help us keep the benefits of centralized ID systems without the pitfalls. [6]

A decentralized identity system can benefit from the trust already present in existing networks that validate identities — i.e Little Brothers. A little brother could be another human able and willing to vouch for your humanity, or any institution which provides academic, government-issued, or and company-related credentials. An individual’s membership to any of these groups can be revoked without compromising their overall identity, since there is no single Big Brother with universal power. These Little Brothers — all the members of the network — can also be scored on the percentage of their members which are found to be fake, and thus have an incentive to keep their membership as accurate as possible. A proof-of-identity should expire after a given period of time in order to ensure that only living users are participating in the network.

In attention mining, human attention serves the purpose of voting on the legitimacy of a claimed identity providing some kind of data to verify themselves, whether it be video, pictures of documents, or something else. Citizens in the Democracy Earth network will use the liquid democracy platform to vote on the singularity and humanity of a new user to the network until verification reaches a democratically determined threshold.

Now with trust itself enabled by technologies rather than institutions, the next evolution of the Internet will be the creation of a common and open identity layer that allows people to have their own self-sovereign identity that is secure, under their control, and always available to them, with no need for intermediary permissions.

The Future

The blockchain-based self-sovereign ID is fundamental to the realization of Article 6 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights which stipulates that

“Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.”

Providing digital identity reduces a primary barrier to accessing services and exercising basic human rights, and gives individuals the self-sovereign power represented by having agency over their personal data.

At Democracy Earth we believe that the greatest benefit of digital blockchain-based IDs is connected to political representation. Self-sovereign IDs allow individuals to become true global citizens who can now vote in an additional world jurisdiction top of their local communities and countries. This makes possible a “built from the bottom-up” global democracy that will also include new communities in decision-making such as diasporas, migrants, and refugees. With blockchain technology, the integrity of the vote is guaranteed and results can be trusted.

This is the world we envision — and are helping to build — at Democracy Earth Foundation, a world of greater equality and justice, economic and political participation enabled by the people’s possession of their digital self-sovereign identity and their human right to own their own vote.

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