"Papers, please" is a phrase with the power to send shivers through the spines of immigrants and travelers the world over.
The ability to prove who one is has a long history of being abused by authoritarian governments and companies looking to generate revenue. But with the advent of distributed ledger technologies, that power is on the precipice of being offerred to the people by private companies for the first time.
One of a rising number of those firms is "Big Four" accounting services provider, Deloitte, which later today is expected to publicly announce plans to open-source its ethereum-based Smart Identity platform.
In conversation with CoinDesk, the CTO of Deloitte Digital UK explained why his firm decided the most logical step forward would be to give away a big chunk of its progress on blockchain identity so far.
Mike Robinson told CoinDesk:
"The most critical success is going to be scaling adoption, scaling consensus, and we believe no one organization is going to be able to own it."
Deloitte has yet to settle on the details of the exact open-source license under which Smart Identity will be handed over, but Robinson says "the goal is to make this very free and easy to use."
While Deloitte makes the final decisions on the license, no code has yet been released to the Smart Identity Github page.
Currently, the Smart Identity platform consists of three main components: individual identity-creation, institutional identity creation and analytics.
In a demo of the product, the user receives three separate key-pairs at login. Each gives the user access to the service in various ways. The sign in key-pair, for example, allows users future access to the platform, while the encryption key-pair lets the user receive information and a final ethereum account key-pair lets the user write smart contracts.
The identity itself is then created by populating fields in an existing ethereum smart contract with any number of attributes. Such attributes could be a birth certificate, a drivers license or a passport. Then, a hash of that smart contract serves as the user's identification.
At that point, it's then up to a licensing institution like the Department of Motor Vehicles in the US or the Road Traffic Office in Switzerland to set up an account and endorse the documents or not.
The terms of the smart contract give institutions the ability to track points on a license, or rescind the license altogether if too many points accumulate. Individual users, on the other hand, could be informed if a license being rescinded might impact his or her ability to hold a bank account using it to verify identity.
Currently, the entire smart contract is hashed, resulting in a less personalized solution than UK blockchain lead Alexander Shelkovnikov hopes Deloitte will be able to offer in the future.
In later incarnations, each individual field will be hashed giving users a way to turn up and turn down identity information much like one might adjust the volume.
"With Smart Identity these people would be able to first have full control over their identity and second who they share their identity with," said Shelkovnikov.
Once the identity is set up and verified, an analytics platform gives users the ability to track exactly which organizations can see what part of his or her identity and which terms of service one has agreed to.
"They could create their identity records on the blockchain, and they would be able to add documents and share that in a much more secure way," Shelkovnikov added.
Building on identity
Deloitte's UK team first identified blockchain identity as a potentially valuable service in early January of this year.
By the end of that month, a two-person team was expanded to include a number of developers and incorporated Deloitte's larger European blockchain initiative, according to Deloitte technical architect Andy Loughran, who helped oversee the process.
But identity itself isn't where Deloitte expects to recoup its investment.
Instead, CTO Mike Robinson said the company wants to be able to charge for its services to help customers build new products that depend on more advanced identity control.
"What we aim to do is get smart identity to the point where it's widely used," said Robinson. "Then we want to use that to solve customer problems"
To do that, the various efforts inside Deloitte need to be coordinated and standardized to ensure the maximum efficiency, he said.
So, as part of today's announcement at Web Summit in Portugal, Deloitte is expected to formally call for both members of the credential-granting public sector and private companies to contribute to the project.
Potential competitors already building similar products include venture backed Shocard, Consensys's uPort and Blockstack Labs' Onename.
While it is unlikely that such competitors will ever lay down their respective efforts, there is reason to believe the ecosystem as a whole might benefit from increased cooperation.
In March, blockchain consultant and author of "The Business Blockchain", William Mougayar predicted that fragmentation among blockchain identity developers could hinder the technology's social benefits.
Don Tapscott, author of "Blockchain Revolution", lent his support to that position as well, arguing that increasingly it makes sense for competitors "to place some capability in a commons and compete on a higher level."
"An open-source model makes a lot of sense because identity is central to almost everything that involves humans. The open-source model can help ensure that the best capability and uniquely qualified minds required can be brought to bear on the project."
Image via Deloitte; Shutterstock