Not yet a member of the Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF), IBM's blockchain director Jerry Cuomo was already thinking about assisting the effort just moments after being introduced to the group at CoinDesk's Consensus 2017 conference.
"The need to standardize is key," he told CoinDesk, explaining the appeal of DIF, the newest blockchain consortia in an increasing diverse ecosystem.
"It's a good start," he adds.
But while IBM may just be getting up to speed, involved in the effort before launch are enterprise firms like Microsoft and Accenture, along with a long list of startups. These include more well-known names (Civic, Gem, IDEO, Netki), and those seeking to make an impact (Consent and Blockchain Foundary) in the digital identity space.
As explained by Wayne Vaughan, CEO of member startup Tierion, what unites the group is a focus on building open-source software, code that will support all the different blockchain identity work ongoing throughout the world.
"It's about contributing to common technologies for certain areas, and still being able to run our businesses," Vaughan said. "Take Civic. If people are generating identities and running Civic, if it's only inside Civic that this works, what's the point?"
Instead, this new breed of identity company concentrated on blockchain needs to work together, he argued – at least on the core architecture that more specific identity applications will ride on.
"Our real competition isn't with each other, but with the big identifiers in the world: Facebook, Apple, Twitter. They control all the identity information that we have."
More specifically, common areas of work include ensuring interoperability of names and identifiers used in blockchain identity systems; the attestations and reputation data enabling verification of information associated with these identities; and methods for securing the blockchain-based identity data underlying them.
The long-term goal is to use this approach to create tools that enable a college like New York University, for example, to validate to others that someone really graduated from a certain program.
But the result could be that such systems even enable new forms of identification and authentication not yet realized or conceived. For instance, autonomous machine-to-machine payments have been on many industry participants' minds since blockchain for the Internet of Things (IoT) environment got a serious new look after several commercial applications proved viable.
"These identifiers and names are not just for people," Vaughan explained. "It's for companies and devices. The blockchain provides a root of trust that isn't controlled by any one organization."
A new domain
What does a blockchain-based identity system look like in practice?
Those involved seem to have a clear idea. The end result, Vaughan hopes, is that there will be a reference implementation that all the companies involved can use to call and query identity-related information. But one that's distributed and decentralized.
If you were to build such a system with today's tools, Vaughan explains, it's very possible to end up with all your data stored on a cloud platform like Amazon Web Services or Dropbox.
This centralized system, though, is vulnerable to hacks, snooping and other types of compromise. By using a blockchain-based system, however, data could be called and verified (instead of just shared), enabling the selective disclosure and verification of the underlying information in a way that puts control back in the hands of users.
"It's like name services on the web. Here's the four locations where Wayne's stuff is, no matter if it's running on our version. They can speak the same protocol," Vaughan said.
With this new system, Vaughan continued, he might chose to use a string of letters – say 'vaughan.id' – to represent his identity, the same way he might have 'Tierion.com' to represent his business online today. Just as on the internet, this moniker would aim to be broadly accessible, not barred off like early email silos.
So, where is the system in development today?
According to Microsoft's head of decentralized identity, Daniel Buchner, four working groups are underway so far. Yet, individual companies involved in the working groups are still seeking to build out their existing infrastructure in their preferred way. Blockstack, for example, will continue to use the bitcoin blockchain, while uPort will build on ethereum.
As explained by DIF members, the goal now is to enlist other developers and other standards groups, like the W3C and IETF, which are already active in this area. For now, this means more conversations with key players such as IBM to help the foundation reimagine how identity services could be delivered in the future, in the hope of doing it better than our current system.
"IBM worked with the US government on social security, and that has become, in the US to this day, the cornerstone of how we share our identity," IBM's Cuomo said.
"It's 2017, we can do better than that."
Digital identity image via Shutterstock