Identity is one use case of the blockchain that has many people excited. For the first time, an individual has the potential to create a true, immutable identity distributed across an entire network.
As Consensus 2016 wrapped up earlier this week, a group of thought-leaders who have been working in the identity space for decades presented their beliefs on what to consider when building an identity system using blockchain.
Christopher Allen, the principal architect at bitcoin sidechain firm Blockstream, echoed the sentiment of other panelists about the duality of identity on the blockchain.
"Blockchain, combined with identity, is a two edged sword. The best, we can hold the powerful accountable for their actions. Transparency, all the different types of things that happened in the 2008 crash, all of that can be avoided with identity and identity services on the blockchain. The worst is we weaponize identity for the powerless."
Allen gave the Aadhaar card project passed this March in India as an example of the positive and negative.
On the one hand, he explained, the ID card system gives nearly 1 billion citizens a way to prove who they are, which allows for fair elections and tracking of abuse.
But on the other hand, he cautioned that during the 1930s, Holland had the best civil service structure in Europe. When the Nazis invaded, he said, more Dutch Jews died than Jews in Germany.
"They [Holland] knew who [the Jews] were, who their friends were, who their family was, and where the businesses were," he said.
From this, he explained that every individual must be the root of their own identity and control its administration. "No one may charge rent or be able to revoke another's identity," he said.
I am my identity
Paul Ferris, founder & CEO of London-based identity collaboration project ObjectChain Collab explained that identities are not static, but rather change and evolve over time.
"Identity changes as I develop as a person and that very much becomes part of my identity."
He explained that flexiblity allowed for personal ownership of identity, the ability to be selective with what information a person reveals, ease of portability so the person can move across the country or world, and for there to be no centralized authority.
Allen described this as the "self sovereign identity" and gave the use case of an individual going to the bar. Presently, to get a drink, a person needs to share his or her ID card, which includes address, age, hair color, eye color, and other personal information.
"All they need to know is that I am allowed to drink," he said. With the self sovereign identity, that would become possible.
Utilizing blockchain for identity
Muneeb Ali, co-founder of Blockstack Labs, explained the technical limitations of building an identity platform on the blockchain, using firsthand experience from the creation of Onename.
He explained that:
Until you solve decentralized identity, you can’t really build other services off of that. This is the first problem that needs to get addressed. But doing a simulation or a proof of concept is very different from running a production system.
Ali cautioned developers into thinking that the blockchain can be the end all, be all. "Use the blockchain very carefully and put as little information as possible because you will run into scalability problems," he said.
He also warned that choosing the strongest blockchain on which to base identity is incredibly important. "If you’re building everything on top of this [weak chain] and something happens, everything can break down," he said.
"The security model around bitcoin has proven to be really strong and there is a $6b bug bounty on it."
During the Q&A, the panel fielded a series of questions regarding taking these ideas and making them production ready. David Birch of Consult Hyperion cautioned that these sorts of projects would take quite a while to implement.
Justin Newton, co-founder and CEO of Netki, a blockchain identity startup, warned that working with governments would also take time.
"You can't walk into a government office and just tell them to get rid of their ID system and trust you."
In spite of the potential obstacles Allen remained optimistic about implementing new forms of identity in the developing world. By and large, he said, people in less developed areas have completely skipped the desktop computer and gone straight to mobile devies. For an identity program to work, it needs to go through the cell phone, he argued.
“In effect, [those in the developing world] already have a certain amount of autonomy where the government doesn’t know what cell phone they have. They’re using minutes or number of texts prepaid as a currency they’re exchanging with other people,” he said.
Image by Jacob Donnelly.