The question of digital identity has never been more relevant. Not merely because societal awareness about protecting online data — especially as it pertains to our identities — is growing proportionally to the number of horror stories in the media about when things go wrong. It’s also due to the fact that blockchain brings with it solutions to problems we knew we had but couldn’t yet fix.
Why is this important? And how can blockchain help? First, let’s understand what identity is, and the vital role it plays in our lives.
What is Identity?
Sidestepping complex social, psychological, and philosophical thought streams about the nature of identity, the dictionary version defines it simply as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.”
The modern world takes such identity for granted: birth certificates are, over the course of our lifetimes, followed by a series of documents that tell a story of us. There are identity documents, passports, and tax numbers. Phone numbers and physical addresses. Biometrics.
To most of us, these are necessary evils — the details we fill out on paperwork, the printed or scanned documents we attach to offline and online applications. Very few people consider the fact that owning an identity is, in fact, an asset. Thanks to such assets, we’re able to partake in the many private, semi-private, and public services offered in a post-modern society, including social welfare, health insurance, education, formal employment, and banking.
Even applying for a marriage certificate or registering the birth of a child requires legal identification. Every time you board an international flight, it’s your passport that got you the visa or the exemption. Every time you use your ID card in one of the countless situations that require it, you’re capitalizing on a resource you own.
Identity as a Human Right
It might surprise you, then, that 15% of the world population are not as lucky. The earth houses an estimated 1.1 (down from 1.5 billion) individuals are considered to be “uncounted.” That is, these people, in the absence of official identity papers, are unable to prove their identities.
Of this vast number of legally invisible people, 1 out of 6 is a child below the age of 5, for whom a lifetime of legal struggles related to their identity has barely begun. A further 4 out of 10 are below the age of 18.
These statistics bring into question the UN’s human rights treaty, Convention of the Rights of the Child, of which Article 7 states:
The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality.
For every potentially tragic ending that has a happy media ending, there are countless stories of human beings who are denied primary – or even life-saving – service due to the absence of personal identification papers. In response, the United Nations has included the provision of legal identity, including birth registration, as part of their 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 16.9).
Owning a legal identity might be a right, but in many ways it’s still treated like a privilege.
Identity in the Digital Age
These situations — and the topic as a whole — are a far cry from our lifestyles in a globalized digital world. When we do consider the matter of identity, it’s usually in the context of bureaucracy. Going through the motions of proving who we are is a formality we accept as necessary, and that’s as much thought as most of us allocate to it.
What we do acknowledge — usually in anger — is that these actions, more often than not, require archaic practices that don’t reflect our technological advances or digital lifestyles. We’ve surpassed the time when we had offline and online selves, and never the two shall meet. Scanning a paper document in order to submit a digital version is laughable at best.
What we spend less time reflecting on, potentially to our detriment, are the behind-the-scenes systems and processes that hungrily gobble up the data sets that serve as our legal identities. Taking such an essential part of our citizenship for granted should surprise us. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that many of our ancestors didn’t even know what their date of birth was.
Instead, we’ve been entrusting our most personal data to faceless corporations whose giant servers are home to billions of sensitive information entries. We don’t have to live in a sci-fi dystopia to recognize the potential pitfalls. We’ve been seeing the consequences of our — mind the pun — lack of ownership over our data for years now, in real time.
Problems With Digital Identity
Inasmuch as our digital selves have become our second selves, we’re still only in the infancy of lives lived digitally. Much like life teaches us to savvy up because we make mistakes, so too do our online experiences mature based on the direct or indirect lessons we learn in the process.
Notwithstanding the fact that managing our identities seemingly stems from the 541 million-year-old Cambrian Age, what follows are 4 of the major problems we’re called on to address as 21st-century citizens.
Whenever you’re required to share your personal data, which necessarily includes your personal identity, you essentially lose ownership of that copy set. Are you able to keep track of just how much of your personal information sits in paper archives and digital server rooms around the globe?
How your data is treated is in the hands of the company in question, policies to which you are neither privy nor have any say over. This is itself a key indication that your data is no longer yours.
Plainspeak: Corporations own your digital identity. Forget 1984: This is real-life stuff, and it’s happening here and now. This state of affairs leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of scenarios, including the problems mentioned below.
If you’re on the internet, there’s a huge probability that your data has been breached. Top companies spend billions of dollars on cybersecurity, but that is no deterrent, for even they don’t manage to escape data breaches.
Breaches have occurred at organizations the likes of Yahoo, eBay, JPMorgan Chase, Equifax, Target, Adobe, Sony PlayStation, and most recently Reddit. Facebook continues to make the news. 87 million users were affected by the Cambridge Analytica breach, where data was used to influence the US elections, and intimate details for 3 million users detailing highly personal answers to a Facebook-linked personality quiz were openly available on the internet for nearly 4 years.
Moreover, data breaches are but first-line problems. There’s always the question of what will be done with your data, including identity theft, which is so common that in the US alone, it takes place every 2 seconds. The stress associated with identity theft is postulated as having the potential to be akin to that experienced by a trauma survivor.
When applying for a store card, you part with sensitive information as part of a trust relationship. You trust that the data you provide will be used for a specific, mutually understood purpose. So imagine your surprise when you start getting calls from scores of third-party companies with whom there’s been no formal agreement.
Many companies are kind enough to provide a little checkbox you may or may not notice, but just as many don’t even allow you the option to opt in… or, if they do, they don’t respect your choice. Our data ends up being used against us with or without our consent because the data that used to be ours no longer is. Instead, it becomes a company asset.
If you’ve ever downloaded a calculator app on the app store which required you to consent to give it access to your address book, you get the idea. In our daily lives, we’re asked to part with far more information than is relevant to the situation at hand. Partly because we don’t give it a second thought, but mostly because we often don’t have a choice in the matter, we frequently end up oversharing our personal information, which results in frustration and time wasted.
How Blockchain is Solving the Problem
Blockchain’s decentralized nature is an important first step in combating the ills faced with digital identity ownership and management. Doing away with centralization eliminates the very problems listed, as data ownership remains in the hands of its owner.
And it’s secure — so much so that the US Senate is pushing for it to be used for data security at the state level. No wonder enterprises are lining up to adopt the technology to avoid future seats on lists detailing the world’s top data breaches.
To understand what a solution might entail, we look to SelfKey, a blockchain-based digital identity management platform.
Building a blockchain-based identity system that allows identity owners to truly own, control and manage their digital identity and radically enables financial inclusion, in order to advance on the human rights and fundamental freedoms related to data and identity sovereignty.
SelfKey serves a threefold user base in their quest to transform how digital identity management is employed and, equally important, to support increasing adoption rates.
For identity owners, the solution provides the following benefits:
- Self-hosted data storage, effectively eliminating data breaches
- Secure and private data sharing that puts data sharing into the user’s hands through the use of a public/private key mechanism
- Data minimization that allows users to share only the necessary details with third parties
- Reusable instant KYC processes that eliminate the need to input the same information over and over again: an intelligent practice for an intelligent age
For parties reliant on client data, SelfKey offers:
- The SelfKey marketplace to connect with customers, acquire more, and provide a streamlined user experience
- KYC-chain bank-grade compliance software that offers a workflow solution to manage a business’s KYC processes
Finally, through SelfKey certifiers are able to monetize attestations, adding to their bottom line by creating an additional income stream that simultaneously scales their business internationally.
SelfKey recognizes that sharing our legal digital identities is becoming as common as online passwords. We have countless password-management solutions, the common thread being “One password to rule them all.”
SelfKey is to digital identity management what LastPass is to passwords. Only, it’s so much more.
The company’s token sale sold out in 11 minutes, and ever since, they have not let investors or their community down. SelfKey received a Mauritius Regulatory Sandbox License, and has partnered with a wide range of companies, both blockchain-related and in other industries.
Notable partnerships include handling KYC for securities token platform Polymath, a wallet integration partnership with decentralized liquidity network Kyber Network, with NTL Immigration Trust, Astronaut Capital, and with 2 international banks, one in the Cayman Islands, the other in Dutch Antilles. A full list of partnerships can be perused here.
The dedicated SelfKey team are steadily working their way through the startup’s roadmap, reaching milestone after milestone, with many more exciting updates and functionalities in store for 2018-19.
It can be argued that in managing our digital identities, many of us have been like bulls in a china shop, stomping and trampling mindlessly instead of carefully deliberating what we’re sharing, and with whom. While redeeming our past missteps is in many instances not possible, it’s in our hands to ensure that how we handle our data from here is tackled smartly and securely.
Fortunately, blockchain is extending a hand, offering us solutions to prevent us from becoming the main character in a cautionary tale, used to teach others the consequences of not safeguarding ourselves through good practice.