The challenge for self-sovereign identity (SSI)

After several years of research and experimentation, why don't we see more SSI solutions in use?

As the blockchain hype cycle neared its peak, people started wondering if this technology could be applied to industries beyond finance. Imaginations wandered, people thinking where else in our economy or society do we see centralised systems or power creating issues?

Digital identity was one of these places. Issues in digital identity are great and varied. For example, legal identity or the lack thereof currently excludes ~1 billion people from participating fully in civic, social and economic life. And the monopoly access to the social graph underpinning Facebook provides them with the ability to sway public opinion and earn extraordinary advertising revenue in the process.

These problems challenge us to rethink how data is owned, controlled and shared in society, particularly as it applies to digital identity. To date, most approaches have only focused on interoperability and while an important step it only solves part of the problem.

Interoperability enables data to move between systems but it does little on its own for expanding who gets to participate in the digital identity ecosystem. If all we focus on is interoperability then all we will get is data bridges between established organisations, maintaining and reinforcing the status-quo. Expanding who can participate is how we will surface the new ideas and solutions required to overcome the digital identity challenges of today.

A digital identity ecosystem that focuses on expanding interoperability and participation allows for more innovation potential, and hence greater opportunities to address the pressing global digital identity challenges.

Rethinking Data Ecosystems

Over the last five years I have observed four different types of approaches to data unfold: Data islands, monopolies, cartels, and ecosystems. Each can be differentiated by the degree to which they facilitate data interoperability and how committed they are to openness; with openness referring to how transparent and easy it is to participate.

As more attention is directed toward digital identity there has been a recognition of the challenges presented by data monopolies, and an attempt to find alternatives to this.

Self-sovereign identity (SSI) has been espoused by many around the world as being a silver bullet to the digital identity problem. But several years in, no SSI solution has made significant traction in the market. Instead, we see cartels forming that facilitate data interoperability between data monopolies using federated approaches and similar.

Data Ecosystems & Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI)

The reason why we have seen less uptake in SSI solutions is because the people behind these solutions fail to recognise the design principles that will be most important to its success. Instead, we see people focusing on technological nirvanas like blockchain or an over-emphasis on governance.

To give some examples, many “blockchain” SSI solutions are centralised business models on a decentralised stack. While the data is interoperable from an end user perspective, all other stakeholders within the digital identity ecosystem are forced to use their infrastructure to participate. This is no better than a data monopoly or data cartel.

Similarly there are several organisations focusing heavily on governance, such as Sovrin Foundation. While Sovrin Foundation has done the digital identity sector a great service, Kim Duffy from MIT captures the problem with these large foundation approaches to digital identity and credentials brilliantly…

There are good reasons for creating governance mechanisms, particularly when considering the sensitivity of the data we are managing. However there are other mechanisms for managing this sensitivity, such as smaller contained pilots. Governance structures, once built, are extremely difficult to remove and costly to maintain. Governance creates barriers to entry and has the end result of creating exclusive systems rather than the open and inclusive systems the digital identity environment needs if we have any hope in harnessing hearts and minds in order to solve the digital identity problems of today.

Lowering the barriers to entry for those wanting to issue, share and verify credentials should be our first priority, creating fit-for-purpose and light weight governance mechanisms if and when necessary.

For self-sovereign identity to work at scale, it needs to demonstrate that it’s better at scale than the current alternatives. The existing approach to digital identity isn’t working because particular human groups have co-opted it for their own interests. We won’t fix this by enabling another group of people to co-opt it for their interests (no matter how altruistic).

The real shift will happen when we can create the necessary conditions for interoperability and full and open participation.

A roadmap forward

The success story of digital identity to-date is that we now have a suite of tools that make interoperability easy. To move to the next stage we need to find ways that enable people to build digital identity solutions using these tools in an open and participatory way.

We might take solace in the fact that self-sovereign identity today looks more like the early days of the internet; while there are several “intranets” all competing for market share, it will take a small group to offer an open approach that will unlock the promise of digital identity.

To move digital identity forward, there are three questions that we really need to address together:

  • How do we create incentives for convergence around interoperability standards?

  • How do we create a consistent approach for linking identity addresses such as DIDs back to real world identities?

  • How do we create an open digital identity landscape that prioritises participation over governance?

Digital identity is an important issue for us to get right, and a problem very worthy of our time. A focus on interoperability and participation provides us with a strong technical foundation along with the greatest change of encouraging the hearts and minds of people around the world to help reimagine digital identity for the 21st century.

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John, Anil “Unknown presentation title” Presentation given at the Identity Expo, Canberra Australia, August 2019