Having just spent almost 10 years thinking, reading and writing about identity, I thought, or perhaps I had hoped, that such things were behind me. Throwing myself into the cryptographic world of blockchain seemed like distraction enough; but here, in the world of immutable records, anonymous transactions and decentralising processes – I find myself part of the same conversation. The frequently cited benefits of this new technology are often about knowing something for certain, like who someone is, who owns what, when it changed hands and whether or not it is real. Blockchain is often about identity.
The buzz, for blockchain enthusiasts at least, is not the talk of blockchain 2.0, of coloured coins and smart contracts – that is so 2014. The conversation has moved on, now the real preachers of this new world order want blockchain 3.0 – a decentralised economy in which every transaction made is recorded for public view. This new economy even has a new government, and it is a very small government at that. According to many at Bitnation, it is small because it does very little. This libertarian group have some potentially useful views on what such services might be. They suggest a ‘government as a service’ – a service for all people, regardless of nationality, gender, or ethnicity.
Perhaps the most obvious example of what such a service may look like is how we normally deal with the problem of identity at the moment. Before you scream at the computer that you know who you are (congratulations) how do you prove it? Passport? Driving licence? Work ID? Certainly such things can be useful, despite being full of rather abstract information such as gender. But they are stable constants that hardly represent the changing nature of our lives. What happens when we move house? Or change work? What happens when we lose said document and have to prove, all over again, that we are who we say we are? How do you do that if you have lost all the proof in the first place? Or why do I have to tell the man behind the bar my full name and address, just to confirm my age? Perhaps more concerning, what happens when someone fakes your particular ID and swans around the place spending your credit rating and bankrupting businesses in your good name? I grant you, if the worst does come to the worst, you could always buy a new one on the darknet – saves all that pesky proof.
Blockchain enthusiasts such as Melanie Swann think there might just be a new way. What if your passport was a collection of your history, a snapshot of your transactions in life – a relational passport that was immutable, non-transferable, constantly updated, secure and (perhaps most importantly) available to everyone at what is promised as a fraction of the cost – if you exclude the difficulties around proof-of-work. Those most evangelical about the technology behind blockchain, more broadly called Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), consider that such technology to be a game-changer and one that doesn’t necessarily require proof or work, or proof of stake, for a commercial product.
Such a passport would likely be a collection of bits of information across several different ledgers. There would be ledgers that confirm you age, one that could confirm that you can drive, another that records your credit rating, which itself would be a ledger of your transactions through your bank. All of these things could be used to build a picture of who you are and how you conduct yourself in the world. Whenever you needed the information itself you could gather it from any laptop, tablet or even your phone. Now this level of accessibility does sound like a security concern, I grant you. If you have all of that information at your fingertips, then surely so can everyone else. Indeed, by collating all of this information into one could create a very tempting target. This is where the powerful cryptography behind such DLTs comes it.
Using a public-private key pairing, all of the information available on a blockchain can be held anonymously, with the details hidden behind an algorithmically secure string. Simply put, public and private keys are two halves of a unique code generated for each user and they work together to encrypt, send and decrypt information. Further, since each record is stored chronologically, it is impossible to change the record of the chain without other people on the network seeing, and correcting the error. When you want to get information out of the chain, you highlight your piece of information using your public key, and unlock it using your private key. So far so good – you have access to your own data, it is secure; as long as you keep your private key secure that is.
When it comes to using some of that data then it will be possible to choose a collection of bits of that data and confirm it – similar to what is already happening in Estonia. That way, a brief look at the ledger records will easily facilitate a new bank account, or a trip abroad. Alternatively, with the use of a mobile phone app, and till system you could confirm that you are indeed over the age of eighteen, without handing over more information than you would want. The ledger of your identity is highly modern concept – it changes constantly, yet will always point to the single person that is you. To fake such an identity you would need to start with the birth records and build one up over time – it would take as long as the person you were bringing into being.
We are, of course, still quite far away from any large government thinking this is a good idea. We are still quite some distance away from a fully functioning commercial product promised by the plethora of SMEs and startups all promising unique value generated by such DLTs. We might be still waiting, but this technology is still likely to land and people will make a lot of money out of it – or they will decentralise governance, empower people and provide governance as a service. Depends on the idealistic stance.
This post is part of a series of expert blogs that are being published in the run up to the Online Age Checking: The Time Has Come symposium, which will be held at the British Library on September 22.
Book your place at the upcoming symposium to listen to a wide range of experts share their views about online age checking and the scope for a data exchange eco-system to provide the commercial sector with age attributes (under 18s) in a permissioned, privacy enhanced manner, ensuring security of personally identifiable information (PII) at all times.
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