Identity and Digital Self-Sovereignty
Natalie Smolenski

While I progressed in my reading, I kept repeating to myself “brilliant,” “yes,” “spot on” until that unfortunate anti-climax moment, when I read about Blockcerts and self-sovereign identity…

I find the statement “[blockchain-based ledger technology] de-centers institutions from an authorial position in the life of the learner” rather dubious. Blockchains, in the context of Blockcert, far from reducing the asymmetry between individuals and institutions is reifying this asymmetry into an infrastructure where individuals have little, if no agency at all. And the problem is not just with the blockchain, but with what it is about: “Blockcerts — An Open Infrastructure for Academic Credentials on the Blockchain.”

Blockcerts are to self-sovereign identity what firebrands are to livestock. Blockcerts are simply a more acceptable way protect the brand of credentialing institutions — especially when it comes to revoking credentials! Moreover, academic credentials, the object of Blockcerts, have at best an extremely tenuous relationship to self-sovereign identity: an academic credential might be a claim, but an identity is not the sum of identifiers and claims…

If one insists to find any relationship between self-sovereign identity and Blockcerts, the identity at stake is probably more that of the academic institutions than individuals. They are the one who decided to use Blockcerts. It was their sovereign decision, not that of the students who are asked, once more, to conform to an infrastructure they have not designed, nor chosen.

In that context, Blockcerts are a probably more a means to contribute to the self-sovereign identity of academic institutions than individuals.

Does what precedes mean that I am opposed to Blockcerts? No, institutions have the right to protect their identity/brand, and if they find in Blockerts a convenient way to implement the revocation of credentials, why not? What I challenge is the inferences: blockchain = self-sovereignty (for whom?!?!?!?) and blockchain = verifiability (digital signature using asymmetric encryption is sufficient!).

Self-sovereign identities might make use of blockchains to fulfil certain functions, but their role should remain ancillary to that goal.

The condition for the emergence of authentic self-sovereign identities is the existence of a milieu where they can grow, while this milieu is the result of the emergence of self-sovereign identities. This interlaced process can be referred to as individuation (c.f. Simondon and Deleuze). While an optimal construction of self-sovereign identities requires a milieu conducive to trust, trust is itself the outcome of this construction process. Trust is at the same time pre-condition and outcome of the individuation process.

The error we have committed until now in relation to trust and identity technologies, including blockchains, is treating trust as a construct independent from that of self-sovereign identities, independent from individuals: there is a trust infrastructure/technology on the one hand, individuals on the other.

If we reflect in terms of individuation, where self-sovereign identities emerge simultaneously with the milieu where they operate, if we consider that the milieu expands in both the physical and digital spaces, we need to pay a close attention to the issue of agency: do the technologies we develop enable greater agency or not? Without individual agency, there is no point in discussing self-sovereign identities. Agency is a pre-requisite.

Is there a technology that would enable every one of us to be the co-designers and co-constructors of the milieu in which we operate while growing our self-sovereign identities? While it might sound like an impossible dream, a solution exists and lies just in front of our eyes: break the (block)chains and let individuals reassemble their components the right way. We have the components, they are just not assembled correctly to empower individuals growing their self-sovereign identities.