21 November, 2019

What is Self Sovereign Identity?

Forging self-sovereign identities in the age of the blockchain

Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) represents the most significant evolution of the Internet since DNS. It will enable a similar global addressing system but for people and their data.

As the name suggests the key principle is that Identity systems are not operated centrally by one organization, but rather the user themselves are in control of their own digital identity and personal data.

The Paypers reports on Identity experts defining this as a new layer of the Internet:

“The current Open Systems Interconnection model (OSI) of the internet stack has 7 layers, 1) Physical, 2) Data Link, 3) Network, 4) Transport, 5) Session, 6) Presentation and then 7) Application. SSI technologies are so fundamentally new that they create a whole new layer just for individuals and users — this is called Layer 8. In this layer, identifiers are managed and owned by individuals and companies. Verifiable credentials can be issued to the identifiers, which can then be shared with any number of services they might interact with.”

The OECD offers this introductory video:

Evernym, a leading vendor in this space, introduces the concept via this webinar:

Identity in the Age of the Blockchain

In his Reboot the Web of Trust presentation Christopher Allen defines this headline theme of Forging self-sovereign identities in the age of the blockchain.

In particular, at 6m50s he describes how the Indian identity scheme ‘Aadhaar’, a centralized government program, violates over a decade of first-world Identity best practices, with few laws against profiling, discrimination and abuse by law enforcement.

To avoid these pitfalls Allen says a key objective was to utilize the same tools used to protect buyers, sellers, traders and auctioneers to protect the helpless, documenting these principles into his defining white paper The Path to Self-Sovereign Identity, which was presented to the United Nations.

In his blog Paul Payam Almasi describes the key relationship to and the role the Blockchain will play, noting a key industry insight:

“As cryptocurrency exchanges like Binance and Coinbase begin to onboard more and more users, they will have the incredible luxury of linking someone’s off chain identity with their blockchain identity. This creates a perfect onramp towards a self sovereign identity model.”

In their guide SearchSecurity highlights:

“In all models of identity management, a digital identity requires identifiers, which ensure the user is who they say they are. However, with self-sovereign identity, identifiers do not need an intermediary. This means that a user’s self-sovereign identity can be registered to a claim, such as a block on a blockchain.”

Decentralized Identity

As this video from Napier University describes, the central technology trend is one of ever decentralizing approaches to identity.

Key open standards include the W3C’s ‘DID’ specification : Decentralized Identifiers.

At a superficial level, a decentralized identifier (DID) is simply a new type of globally unique identifier. But at a deeper level, DIDs are the core component of an entirely new layer of decentralized digital identity and public key infrastructure (PKI) for the Internet.

Identity Ecosystems

Technology alone won’t achieve the overall goal – Governance is also needed to regulate how organizations will collaborate and inter-operate with one another.

Via his blog tech industry luminary Phil Windley describes the launch of the Sovrin Network, the world’s first self-sovereign identity (SSI) network, intended to provide this governance for organizations deploying SSI technologies.

In the same way DNS is implemented through a system of registrars and administered via ICANN, so a similar system will be grown to scale and manage a global network of decentralized identities.

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