By Hannah Pierce and Stefaan Verhulst
The Living Library’s Selected Readings series seeks to build a knowledge base on innovative approaches for improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of governance. This curated and annotated collection of recommended works on the topic of blockchain and identity was originally published in 2017.
The potential of blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies to create positive social change has inspired enthusiasm, broad experimentation, and some skepticism. In this edition of the Selected Readings series, we explore and curate the literature on blockchain and how it impacts identity as a means to access services and rights. (In a previous edition we considered the Potential of Blockchain for Transforming Governance).
In 2008, an unknown source calling itself Satoshi Nakamoto released a paper named Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System which introduced Blockchain. Blockchain is a novel technology that uses a distributed ledger to record transactions and ensure compliance. Blockchain and other Distributed Ledger technologies (DLTs) rely on an ability to act as a vast, transparent, and secure public database.
Distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) have disruptive potential beyond innovation in products, services, revenue streams and operating systems within industry. By providing transparency and accountability in new and distributed ways, DLTs have the potential to positively empower underserved populations in myriad ways, including providing a means for establishing a trusted digital identity.
Consider the potential of DLTs for 2.4 billion people worldwide, about 1.5 billion of whom are over the age of 14, who are unable to prove identity to the satisfaction of authorities and other organizations – often excluding them from property ownership, free movement, and social protection as a result. At the same time, transition to a DLT led system of ID management involves various risks, that if not understood and mitigated properly, could harm potential beneficiaries.
Annotated Selected Reading List
Cuomo, Jerry, Richard Nash, Veena Pureswaran, Alan Thurlow, Dave Zaharchuk. “Building trust in government: Exploring the potential of blockchains.” IBM Institute for Business Value. January 2017.
This paper from the IBM Institute for Business Value culls findings from surveys conducted with over 200 government leaders in 16 countries regarding their experiences and expectations for blockchain technology. The report also identifies “Trailblazers”, or governments that expect to have blockchain technology in place by the end of the year, and details the views and approaches that these early adopters are taking to ensure the success of blockchain in governance. These Trailblazers also believe that there will be high yields from utilizing blockchain in identity management and that citizen services, such as voting, tax collection and land registration, will become increasingly dependent upon decentralized and secure identity management systems. Additionally, some of the Trailblazers are exploring blockchain application in borderless services, like cross-province or state tax collection, because the technology removes the need for intermediaries like notaries or lawyers to verify identities and the authenticity of transactions.
Mattila, Juri. “The Blockchain Phenomenon: The Disruptive Potential of Distributed Consensus Architectures.” Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy. May 2016.
This working paper gives a clear introduction to blockchain terminology, architecture, challenges, applications (including use cases), and implications for digital trust, disintermediation, democratizing the supply chain, an automated economy, and the reconfiguration of regulatory capacity. As far as identification management is concerned, Mattila argues that blockchain can remove the need to go through a trusted third party (such as a bank) to verify identity online. This could strengthen the security of personal data, as the move from a centralized intermediary to a decentralized network lowers the risk of a mass data security breach. In addition, using blockchain technology for identity verification allows for a more standardized documentation of identity which can be used across platforms and services. In light of these potential capabilities, Mattila addresses the disruptive power of blockchain technology on intermediary businesses and regulating bodies.
Identity Management Applications
Allen, Christopher. “The Path to Self-Sovereign Identity.” Coindesk. April 27, 2016.
In this Coindesk article, author Christopher Allen lays out the history of digital identities, then explains a concept of a “self-sovereign” identity, where trust is enabled without compromising individual privacy. His ten principles for self-sovereign identity (Existence, Control, Access, Transparency, Persistence, Portability, Interoperability, Consent, Minimization, and Protection) lend themselves to blockchain technology for administration. Although there are actors making moves toward the establishment of self-sovereign identity, there are a few challenges that face the widespread implementation of these tenets, including legal risks, confidentiality issues, immature technology, and a reluctance to change established processes.
Jacobovitz, Ori. “Blockchain for Identity Management.” Department of Computer Science, Ben-Gurion University. December 11, 2016.
This technical report discusses advantages of blockchain technology in managing and authenticating identities online, such as the ability for individuals to create and manage their own online identities, which offers greater control over access to personal data. Using blockchain for identity verification can also afford the potential of “digital watermarks” that could be assigned to each of an individual’s transactions, as well as negating the creation of unique usernames and passwords online. After arguing that this decentralized model will allow individuals to manage data on their own terms, Jacobvitz provides a list of companies, projects, and movements that are using blockchain for identity management.
Mainelli, Michael. “Blockchain Will Help Us Prove Our Identities in a Digital World.” Harvard Business Review. March 16, 2017.
In this Harvard Business Review article, author Michael Mainelli highlights a solution to identity problems for rich and poor alike–mutual distributed ledgers (MDLs), or blockchain technology. These multi-organizational data bases with unalterable ledgers and a “super audit trail” have three parties that deal with digital document exchanges: subjects are individuals or assets, certifiers are are organizations that verify identity, and inquisitors are entities that conducts know-your-customer (KYC) checks on the subject. This system will allow for a low-cost, secure, and global method of proving identity. After outlining some of the other benefits that this technology may have in creating secure and easily auditable digital documents, such as greater tolerance that comes from viewing widely public ledgers, Mainelli questions if these capabilities will turn out to be a boon or a burden to bureaucracy and societal behavior.
Personal Data Security Applications
Banafa, Ahmed. “How to Secure the Internet of Things (IoT) with Blockchain.” Datafloq. August 15, 2016.
This article details the data security risks that are coming up as the Internet of Things continues to expand, and how using blockchain technology can protect the personal data and identity information that is exchanged between devices. Banafa argues that, as the creation and collection of data is central to the functions of Internet of Things devices, there is an increasing need to better secure data that largely confidential and often personally identifiable. Decentralizing IoT networks, then securing their communications with blockchain can allow to remain scalable, private, and reliable. Enabling blockchain’s peer-to-peer, trustless communication may also enable smart devices to initiate personal data exchanges like financial transactions, as centralized authorities or intermediaries will not be necessary.
Shrier, David, Weige Wu and Alex Pentland. “Blockchain & Infrastructure (Identity, Data Security).” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. May 17, 2016.
This paper, the third of a four-part series on potential blockchain applications, covers the potential of blockchains to change the status quo of identity authentication systems, privacy protection, transaction monitoring, ownership rights, and data security. The paper also posits that, as personal data becomes more and more valuable, that we should move towards a “New Deal on Data” which provides individuals data protection–through blockchain technology– and the option to contribute their data to aggregates that work towards the common good. In order to achieve this New Deal on Data, robust regulatory standards and financial incentives must be provided to entice individuals to share their data to benefit society.