Blockchain Enabled Self-Sovereign Identity

The need for trust replaced by verified reputation

By Thessy Mehrain - User Experience & Product Strategy Uport at ConsenSys

One of the biggest innovations enabled by the internet was the ability to interact remotely. Previously a face-to-face interaction with a person one knew, has been scaled across the globe, be it for a payment, a customer service request or a Facebook post.

This resulted in 3rd parties holding immense amounts of user-identifying data, fragmented and siloed with systematic risk of failure while managing and monetizing user’s reputation.

But now, decentralized technologies like blockchain enable the user themselves to own and control their data and build a portable, verified reputation - the self-sovereign identity.

What is identity?

Many of us begin life with a nickname or change last names reflecting events such as adoption, marriage, and divorce. Universally a person’s name is seen as the most important feature of identity, and not even that stays consistent.

According to the United Nations, about 5.5B of the 7B people worldwide have an officially registered identity, which aims to uniquely describe a person for legal purposes. It usually consists of first and last name, date and place of birth, and is often combined with a numerical identifier such as a social security or passport number.

The remaining 1.5B who are not yet registered will be ‘onboarded' by 2030 as part of the UN’s Development Goals. The UN understands that having a recognized identity is the assertion of one’s individual existence in society, that declares them as belonging to a nation, a tribe, and family. This comes with access to services and other rights and obligations.

Add to that how one interacts in social or business context and the identity is now described by reputation. Reputation is based on trust, and trust lies at the core of any transaction.

Since the establishment of digital services, traditional identifiers have found their way online. They are now held by 3rd parties, which is a liability to both enterprises and individuals. This centralization of user data is a single point of failure for enterprises as it presents a worthwhile target for hackers. Furthermore, there is little influence on privacy terms for the user, and the identity they built by interacting on that service can be wiped in an instant.

Deactivating a user's account means the complete loss of all data, which is equivalent to their identity and reputation for the purpose of this service.

Additionally, the safety of data is compromised even further, since users, required to log into multiple services, often use the same password.

Decentralized technologies like blockchain not only promise a solution to these existing problems, but also offer additional opportunities.

uPort, a self-sovereign identity platform built on Ethereum, is just one such example of how decentralization is reshaping identity. On this platform, the user creates their identity and collects reputation data on a user-friendly mobile app without the need for technical knowledge, and is completely independent from centralized 3rd parties. Having a uPort creates a persistent identifier with a portable reputation that is collected across all of the user’s interactions. Users can then use this portable identity and reputation across the web, which enables a more secure, frictionless, and user-centered experience.

Users don’t have to know that at the core of the uPort identity is a cryptographic key and smart contract address that all identity attributes and reputation claims are tied to.

To preserve privacy, uPort allows to hold data off-chain only referring to it with a hash. The decentralized nature of blockchain increases security by making a one-by-one user attach a costly endeavor.

In the self-sovereign uPort model, the ownership of identity is moved from institutions to users who can selectively disclose their attributes to counterparties as needed. They can also sign-in to websites, digitally sign and verify claims and transactions, move cryptocurrency or tokenized assets, and restore their identity, should their phone need to be replaced. No longer do people have to remember complicated passwords or seeds.

uPort affords enterprises increased efficiency in onboarding customers and employees, by scanning their verified data into the system. This improves the know-your-customer process because enterprises can verify the user’s 3rd-party KYC attestations instead of performing the background checks themselves. Enterprises also benefit from reduced liability by not holding sensitive customer information.

A user-controlled identity and reputation platform for verified attestations on the decentralized blockchain replaces trust, bridging the gap between legacy and digital identity systems.  

About the author

Thessy Mehrain is the user experience and product strategist for uPort, the Sovereign Identity Solution by ConsenSys (ConsenSys.net). Previously she was VP/Product Strategy at JPMorgan, partnered in a consultancy, and had a start-up which co-created a scientific peer review system. She holds a Masters in Human-Computer Interaction, runs a Women-in-Blockchain group and spends most of her time in New York City.
ConsenSys is a venture production studio building decentralized applications and various developer and end-user tools for blockchain ecosystems, primarily focused on Ethereum.