The evolution of identity

As greatly illustrated in this article http://www.lifewithalacrity.com/2016/04/the-path-to-self-soverereign-identity.html the models for online identity have advanced through four broad stages since the advent of the Internet: centralized identity, federated identity, user-centric identity, and self-sovereign identity.

Phase One: Centralized Identity (administrative control by a single authority or hierarchy)

Phase Two: Federated Identity (administrative control by multiple, federated authorities)

Phase Three: User-Centric Identity (individual or administrative control across multiple authorities without requiring a federation)

Phase Four: Self-Sovereign Identity (individual control across any number of authorities)

A Definition of Self-Sovereign Identity

With all that said, what is self-sovereign identity exactly? The truth is that there’s no consensus. As much as anything, this article is intended to begin a dialogue on that topic. However, I wish to offer a starting position.

Self-sovereign identity is the next step beyond user-centric identity and that means it begins at the same place: the user must be central to the administration of identity. That requires not just the interoperability of a user’s identity across multiple locations, with the user’s consent, but also true user control of that digital identity, creating user autonomy. To accomplish this, a self-sovereign identity must be transportable; it can’t be locked down to one site or locale.

A self-sovereign identity must also allow ordinary users to make claims, which could include personally identifying information or facts about personal capability or group membership18. It can even contain information about the user that was asserted by other persons or groups.

In the creation of a self-sovereign identity, we must be careful to protect the individual. A self-sovereign identity must defend against financial and other losses, prevent human rights abuses by the powerful, and support the rights of the individual to be oneself and to freely associate19.

However, there’s a lot more to self-sovereign identity than just this brief summation. Any self-sovereign identity must also meet a series of guiding principles — and these principles actually provide a better, more comprehensive, definition of what self-sovereign identity is. A proposal for them follows:

Ten Principles of Self-Sovereign Identity

A number of different people have written about the principles of identity. Kim Cameron wrote one of the earliest “Laws of Identity”20, while the aforementioned Respect Network policy21 and W3C Verifiable Claims Task Force FAQ22 offer additional perspectives on digital identity. This section draws on all of these ideas to create a group of principles specific to self-sovereign identity. As with the definition itself, consider these principles a departure point to provoke a discussion about what’s truly important.

These principles attempt to ensure the user control that’s at the heart of self-sovereign identity. However, they also recognize that identity can be a double-edged sword — usable for both beneficial and maleficent purposes. Thus, an identity system must balance transparency, fairness, and support of the commons with protection for the individual.

  1. Existence. Users must have an independent existence. Any self-sovereign identity is ultimately based on the ineffable “I” that’s at the heart of identity. It can never exist wholly in digital form. This must be the kernel of self that is upheld and supported. A self-sovereign identity simply makes public and accessible some limited aspects of the “I” that already exists.
  2. Control. Users must control their identities. Subject to well-understood and secure algorithms that ensure the continued validity of an identity and its claims, the user is the ultimate authority on their identity. They should always be able to refer to it, update it, or even hide it. They must be able to choose celebrity or privacy as they prefer. This doesn’t mean that a user controls all of the claims on their identity: other users may make claims about a user, but they should not be central to the identity itself.
  3. Access. Users must have access to their own data. A user must always be able to easily retrieve all the claims and other data within his identity. There must be no hidden data and no gatekeepers. This does not mean that a user can necessarily modify all the claims associated with his identity, but it does mean they should be aware of them. It also does not mean that users have equal access to others’ data, only to their own.
  4. TransparencySystems and algorithms must be transparent. The systems used to administer and operate a network of identities must be open, both in how they function and in how they are managed and updated. The algorithms should be free, open-source, well-known, and as independent as possible of any particular architecture; anyone should be able to examine how they work.
  5. Persistence. Identities must be long-lived. Preferably, identities should last forever, or at least for as long as the user wishes. Though private keys might need to be rotated and data might need to be changed, the identity remains. In the fast-moving world of the Internet, this goal may not be entirely reasonable, so at the least identities should last until they’ve been outdated by newer identity systems. This must not contradict a “right to be forgotten”; a user should be able to dispose of an identity if he wishes and claims should be modified or removed as appropriate over time. To do this requires a firm separation between an identity and its claims: they can’t be tied forever.
  6. Portability. Information and services about identity must be transportable. Identities must not be held by a singular third-party entity, even if it’s a trusted entity that is expected to work in the best interest of the user. The problem is that entities can disappear — and on the Internet, most eventually do. Regimes may change, users may move to different jurisdictions. Transportable identities ensure that the user remains in control of his identity no matter what, and can also improve an identity’s persistence over time.
  7. Interoperability. Identities should be as widely usable as possible. Identities are of little value if they only work in limited niches. The goal of a 21st-century digital identity system is to make identity information widely available, crossing international boundaries to create global identities, without losing user control. Thanks to persistence and autonomy these widely available identities can then become continually available.
  8. Consent. Users must agree to the use of their identity. Any identity system is built around sharing that identity and its claims, and an interoperable system increases the amount of sharing that occurs. However, sharing of data must only occur with the consent of the user. Though other users such as an employer, a credit bureau, or a friend might present claims, the user must still offer consent for them to become valid. Note that this consent might not be interactive, but it must still be deliberate and well-understood.
  9. Minimalization. Disclosure of claims must be minimized. When data is disclosed, that disclosure should involve the minimum amount of data necessary to accomplish the task at hand. For example, if only a minimum age is called for, then the exact age should not be disclosed, and if only an age is requested, then the more precise date of birth should not be disclosed. This principle can be supported with selective disclosure, range proofs, and other zero-knowledge techniques, but non-correlatibility is still a very hard (perhaps impossible) task; the best we can do is to use minimalization to support privacy as best as possible.
  10. Protection. The rights of users must be protected. When there is a conflict between the needs of the identity network and the rights of individual users, then the network should err on the side of preserving the freedoms and rights of the individuals over the needs of the network. To ensure this, identity authentication must occur through independent algorithms that are censorship-resistant and force-resilient and that are run in a decentralized manner.

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