Insights & Analyses

How decentralized, self-sovereign identity could be closer than you think

What if you could establish your identity without any central authority? What if the current “gold standard” — in America, a drivers license — weren’t as essential for identifying yourself?

It may sound far fetched, but some experts believe the concept of a decentralized, self-sovereign ID, one that you control, could be an inevitability.

A drivers license is currently an integral part of identification — in many cases, the only form of it — for citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere. But as Evernym Chief Executive Timothy Ruff noted, simple tasks like opening a bank account can require multiple forms of identification, because a drivers license is not enough.

Many institutions engage in what Ruff called a “big correlation exercise” where a variety of documents, like bills or a credit report, are compared against one another. There’s even a rudimentary form of biometric authentication: your photo ID is compared against your real-world likeness.

When thought about that way, he argues, the concept of a decentralized ID is not so far fetched, particularly if a new, digital way of verifying a person’s identity is more convenient.

“Instant is very important,” Ruff said on the latest episode of the State of Identity podcast. “If it’s not instant verification, if they have to go pick up a phone call and call a source, then we’re back in the world we are today.”

In this world, where citizens can obtain and control their own decentralized IDs, the role of the government is lessened. In that scenario, the government simply becomes “another attester,” alongside a collection of IDs of varying quality and security.

In many ways, when an ID or passport alone are not enough for some financial transactions, we’re already living in that world.

But the push for a decentralized ID, and for more individual control of our identities, could accelerate. Ruff and others see the political winds shifting.

“There’s this massive pushback against what we might call the surveillance economy, and it’s all these wonderfully idealistic concepts are about to be enshrined legally and without a mechanism to comply,” he said.

David “Doc” Searls, author and senior editor of Linux Journal, believes we need new tools to make it easy for citizens to control their identity and decide how it is used. Noting people are “sovereign human beings,” he thinks companies will eventually find themselves in a position where their customers will legally dictate the terms of how their information is gathered and used.

“It’s a kind of Eden,” Searls said. “Just like Eden in nature, we were born naked there we had to invent privacy technologies, we had to invent clothing and shelter, and we have to do that online as well. And that starts with terms.”

Until that Eden can be achieved, however, Searls admits there will be a fight over the rights to privacy and control of data as they pertain to identity. At the moment, he said, many companies have “full agency” — but he expects that to change.

“That’s going to be reversed,” he said, “once we get control of our identities.”

For more in-depth conversations, subscribe to the State of Identity podcast on iTunes, and hear new episodes every Tuesday.