Machine Economy Deep Dives: Digital Identity Part V

Expert interview with Jolocom

We started our deep dive series by exploring digital identity solutions that don’t rely on third parties, but instead are user-managed and trustless by design (a.k.a. self-sovereign identities), and proposed blockchain technology as the solution.

For this new chapter in the series, we have invited Joachim Lohkamp and Kai from Jolocom to tell us more about their approach to a self-sovereign identity for humans and how Jolocom is providing it.

So, let’s get things rolling…

iH: Can you give us a brief pitch? What is Jolocom doing?

J: Jolocom enables a fully self-sovereign digital identity that bridges the gap between centralized services and the emerging decentralized applications enabled by blockchain technology. As an open source identity layer for the internet, Jolocom empowers individuals and organizations with tools to create and manage digital identity and become independent from identity providers. With sophisticated key management, verification, and single sign-on functionalities Jolocom can readily replace existing centralized identity solutions with a decentralized and open source tool. A Jolocom identity is claim-based, meaning you can model complex structures associated with an identity in the form of claims (e.g. stating that you are over 21 years old and have residence in Germany) that can further be verified to build up trust.

Situated at the forefront of decentralized developments, Jolocom identities are designed to be backend agnostic, allowing for the integration of various blockchain technologies. Following the recent alpha release of our app, Jolocom’s next steps include introducing token management and interaction via smart contracts. Our express aim is to create a simple, useable, and lovable tool to own and control your digital footprint.

iH: Do you think blockchain is the best available solution for enabling self-sovereign identities –if yes, why?

J: Decentralized, trustable storage solutions like those enabled by (public permissionless) blockchains are ideal for structuring registries that encode a conceptual shift toward self-sovereign identity. Separating the act of registering an identity from the (subsequent) act of building up trust on that identity is an novel technique made possible thanks to blockchain.

This methodological maneuver is a milestone in digital identity management and brings us closer toward a pragmatic self-sovereign identity solution.

Still, we think blockchains ought to be used only when appropriate, and not every part of the self-sovereign identity ecosystem necessarily requires incorporating a blockchain. With regard to the claims used to manage your attributes and make them verifiable, we do not see blockchain as the right type of storage solution. Our architecture reflects this belief: we use blockchain solely for registering and making the identity reference available (i.e. selectively accessible); for the storage of identity attributes such as your name, age or address, we currently use IPFS or the secure, encrypted storage on the identity holder’s personal device. Doing things in this ways gets us much closer to full data ownership and control, and we achieve compliance with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

iH: Are there other technologies that could enable identity self-sovereignty?

J: As indicated above, we envision an ecosystem for self-sovereign identity that builds on many different decentralized technologies, and we see such an environment taking shape already. Blockchains are specialized tools to manage incentives and facilitate peer-to-peer trust relationships. However, when it comes to other features of the ecosystem, different technical approaches and technologies are more suitable — making use of decentralized storage (IPFS, SWARM, or Filecoin) for larger data sets that the user might not want to store on her device but still have full control over, such as recorded meta-data, for example. In order to be sustainable an ecosystem should welcome and even encourage a multiplicity of decentralized technologies.

To that end, we see modular software architecture as a prerequisite for a sustainable, decentralized Web 3.0. Whether a blockchain, storage, or file system, every module in digital identity management should be interchangeable and interoperable — even combinable. That is why we designed Jolocom identities to be backend agnostic, so they can be used with any single or any number of other modules. You can think about it as trying to decentralize decentralization.

iH: There’s many critics out there talking about the use of blockchain for digital identities. What are your thoughts on these main arguments:

  • GDPR — right to erasure (to be forgotten) is not possible.

J: The GDPR was not configured with blockchain in mind. The EU concluded on the General Data Protection Regulation in 2016 following years of debate and deliberation. However, it’s only been over the last couple years — effectively after the GDPR was finalized and approved — that blockchains and their (potential) applications have become a constant, lingering figure in public imagination. As such, the GDPR was unwittingly conceived and shaped in a political and socio-economic climate that was largely incognizant of the technological advances (specifically distributed ledger technology) soon to sweep the globe and have a tidal impact on broad sectors of society and human activity.

In general, many approaches to digital identity that make use of blockchains are perfectly suitable for achieving the aims of the GDPR and upholding its spirit, but the regulation is formulated and structured in a way that presumes — and thus caters to — data management approaches which rely on centralized architecture. For this reason, GDPR policies can cause friction when you try to introduce (elements of) decentralization into digital identity management. Does a hash or public key comply with the regulation? Are we willing to give up the practical advantages of centralization for the long-term efficiencies offered by decentralizing our identities?

For the moment GDPR poses somewhat of a constraint when trying to engineer tools for building self-sovereign identities, but the existing framework also raises important questions that are worth us thinking through both collectively and as individuals. Who should be (held) responsible for data stored in a public decentralized database? How can the burden of full control and ownership of one’s data be eased without ceding sovereignty? These are the types of questions that arise as the current data regulations rub against a constantly evolving technological landscape.

Other open questions largely revolve around personal data. One crucial discussion in this area addresses the treatment of public keys as private data, thus ensnaring a core architectural component of all blockchains in the “right to be forgotten” debate. To legally use any type of blockchain architecture in the EU from May 25 onwards, we must first explore how we want to think about private keys and commit to some practical resolution to apply in the blockchain space. Whether this aspect of the GDPR can somehow be mediated in the blockchain landscape is crucial. Our work at Jolocom is already informing this discussion: keep an eye out for a position paper on the topic of GDPR and blockchain in the coming weeks from the Blockchain Bundesverband, a public interest group that emerged out of the German blockchain community and focuses on advances in technology with the potential to innovate the networks which give rise to our society and the infrastructure which guides the way it functions.

  • When data is on the chain, there is no way to change it, so there is no room for error in the initial setup.

J: This statement is fairly accurate, but the critique cannot be generalized so far as to encompass each and every governance action on a blockchain — (soft and hard) forks are a good counterexample. As previously explained, we do not think blockchain is the ideal approach for every instance of data storage — it’s not an “all-purpose” solution to every problem or task. Our protocol does not store any claims on a blockchain, so the Jolocom solution sidesteps this critique at the design level.

  • Blockchains were designed to solve problems quite different from identity management (IDM). We need to remember that the classic blockchain is an elaborate system that allows total strangers to nevertheless exchange real value reliably (no need for identity)

J: Blockchains can differ a lot in terms of their functionalities and purpose. While every blockchain secures a mutually agreed upon transaction history, the type of value and transactions they record can widely vary. For example, Bitcoin and Ethereum command very different use cases. While I agree that blockchains were initially designed and tailored to facilitate real value exchange and make such transactions efficient and reliable, I wouldn’t say there is no need for identity in the classic conception. The very notion of transactions across distributed ledgers implicitly calls for some system of public and private keys, and these key pairs constitute a rudimentary version of identity.

Jolocom’s solution to digital identity management recognizes blockchains that are public and permissionless as the only available types of registry that are fully decentralized and allow anyone and everyone to (self-)register a trustable reference to one’s identity. It is the only tool to date that enables individuals to fully regain control over their identity in the digital space and reclaim ownership of their personal, private data. Our approach ensures no one can prevent an identity holder from registering a digital identity, from realizing a digital self. While the classic conception of blockchain might have pegged its primary use case as a reliable mode of real value exchange, the claim that identity and trustable claims provide real value is equally valid and reasonable.

Again, blockchains are very useful for a specific aspect of digital identity solutions, namely the registration of identities and the creation of incentives to engage and be active in the ecosystem. For other aspects of identity management, they are simply not the right tool. Still, we should not allow ourselves to succumb to a provincial perspective of blockchains as mere value transaction machines, a limiting (and arguably dangerous) conception of the technology that has unfortunately eclipsed blockchain’s more exceptional applications and potential uses (e.g. as governance automation machines). The possibilities for blockchain beyond the realm of fintech will only become apparent in the coming years — you can be certain we’re watching intently.

  • Privacy concerns when personal data is put in a permissionless blockchain

J: Privacy is indeed a good starting point for pinning down what functions a blockchain can perform in the scope of (self-sovereign) digital identity, and I completely agree with this particular point about personal data on permissionless chains. Blockchain security is always relative (though it is quite robust in general) and there is actually no need to put personal data (in the form of identity attributes like name, age or biometrics) on a blockchain. Personal data can and should be held and controlled exclusively by the person about whom that data exists. In other words, individual holders of identity should be masters of their own data domains. As we see it, blockchains are well suited for use as registries, as well as for incentivization. Personal data and attribute storage definitely don’t make the list though.

“A long-exposure shot of a busy crosswalk in Santiago” by mauro mora on Unsplash

iH: What is the biggest challenge for widespread adoption?

J: Self-sovereign identity can only be realized if we establish an open system based on shared standards (a nod to the success of the framework that undergirds HTTP and SMTP as they constantly and reliably sustain our digital activities behind the scenes). Both the Decentralized Identity Foundation and the W3C do great work in the open protocol space, and Jolocom helps steward the development of such standards directly in our approach to digital identity and the solutions we provide. We need to understand self-sovereign identity as a multilayer system with an open standard layer that enables everyone to register and use their identity (and associated credentials) entirely free of charge. On top of this layer, we will see service layers emerge that can take the shape of protocols or DApps used to facilitate the identity ecosystem. We need to appreciate that the success of the web browsers and email clients we use every day is based on the open source protocols they run on.

A sustainable self-sovereign identity requires true collaboration toward open source solutions and open standards in an effort to establish the basis of an ecosystem that supports additional layers of interaction which can generate direct and indirect value. The emergence of such standards and their distribution and real world use is key to widespread adoption of self-sovereign identity. Perhaps the biggest challenge then is evaluating the many exciting opportunities for collaboration and choosing which to invest your time and resources into.

iH: In your particular case, how do you get businesses/people to use it? What is your adoption strategy?

J: At Jolocom we like to keep things open — it’s a principle at the core of our identity (pun intended). And this goes for the tools and solutions we provide for realizing the base identity layer. That’s why we believe the registration of identity and the exchange of verified claims should remain a free-of-charge protocol standard subject to neither monetization, nor tokenization. This way, everyone interested in joining the identity ecosystem can be sure that the underlying protocol won’t “lock them in”. Our solutions for identity management are available to anyone and everyone without any strings attached. Gaining control over your digital self without having to compromise your integrity is a compelling reason to become a Jolocom user whether you’re an individual, organization, business, or IoT device.

This barrier-free identity layer also serves as a foundation on top of which additional, more complex layers can be built. These service-oriented layers open up opportunities for incentivizing ecosystem actors to create and add value, for example, by verifying claims, providing access to a service, or contracting personal data to a service. These incentive layers are themselves incentives to get involved in the ecosystem. Central to any adoption strategy for digital identity solutions is making clear the distinction between the infrastructure

layer that remains fully open and non-monetized and the separate incentive layers that give life to the ecosystem. It’s important to pull the two apart.

iH: How can we create an ecosystem for identities and ensure that the average users can use it securely without violating his/her privacy?

J: With blockchain enabled identity, there are many things that can go wrong, particularly when it comes to what data gets written to the blockchain and what type of data and metadata is produced in general. With metadata there is always the risk of correlation between keys, key holders, and blockchain transactions, which might indirectly help identify me (as well as my activities) and thus violate my privacy. To address this issue, we enable interaction-specific decentralized identifiers (DIDs) that work against all kinds of DID correlation. This problem also crops up when it comes to other certain types of attributes (such as phone numbers), so we closely follow developments in cryptography to continuously improve the measures we take to protect users’ privacy, like making use of zero-knowledge proofs to preserve anonymity.

Photo by annie bolin on Unsplash

iH: What do you think is the role of governments — who currently control the issuance of identity? will they continue being as involved in the process or will it be taken over by other institutions (e.g. NGOs in refugee camps) or none at all (self-claims)?

J: This question links back to the conceptual permutation necessary for self-sovereign identity — what really amounts to a paradigm shift in how we manage digital identity — that I touched on earlier. I think we will see a gradual shift toward people self-registering their identities and exercising a greater degree of control over their digital selves. It’s not unthinkable that there might be cases where certain claims involving verification actors are deemed more trustworthy than those involving public governing bodies (particularly in the case of corrupt governments, oppressive regimes, and crooked administrations).

That being said, self-sovereign identity will generally not change the sovereign role of the state as a verifier that provides a basis of trust for its citizens. For instance, I don’t see Germany straying from this setup. While the spread of self-sovereign identity might very well jeopardize the livelihood of businesses that print ID cards while simultaneously making certain functions and features of bureaucracy utterly obsolete, the role of the state as an indispensable provider of trust for identity will not change.


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