The Question of Self-Sovereignty

May 2019
Last year at a blockchain event in Boston I had a very interesting conversation around the topic of self-sovereignty. The discussion in question took place with a man who had a passion for etymology and challenged my view of what it meant to have a self-sovereign identity.

Self-sovereignty, as I thought about it and understood it, was the ability of a person to take control of their own data, and to avoid sharing details about it if they wished. Why should a person have to know my date of birth to know that I am over 18? In a world where this kind of information is shown on social media - or at least messages wishing you a happy birthday may make it obvious - it may seem churlish to take issue with this. However,it should be taken into account that social media usually has privacy settings and, whilst a few friends-of-friends or third-hand acquaintances can find out when you were born, this is different to having to show your date of birth at - for example - a bar.

Taken in context, this requirement to share personal information also has wider implications. Going to a bar and showing a driving license or passport doesn’t just show your date of birth to prove your age - it also shows details such as your address, your nationality or your passport number. Even simply divulging your date of birth can be risky as it is a significant contribution to a bad actor being able to commit credit card fraud or identity theft. The potential of this situation to arise might not be a huge deal for some people but for others it will be, and the point is that there is no reason for another person to see that level of personal information - so why should they?

Back in Boston, my acquaintance saw self-sovereignty on a whole other level. His view was that a person - any person - should have their identity based on what is inherent to them - an identity potentially based on biometrics and other parameters - rather than being issued documentation by a government. That is not to say that this alternative would not have its own dangers - the potential fraud that could be carried out when a person’s biometric data has been compromised could be the topic of a whole other discussion. Regardless, any identity that had to be granted by an outside authority, he argued, was not self-sovereign. It may seem like an anarchist ideal, but was it wrong? Someone needs to issue a birth certificate,a passport or a driving license, but does it have to be the government?

There are many potential arguments to be made about the reliability, efficiency or trustworthiness of governments and, by extension, government issued identity, but the fact remains that, however identity is bestowed:

  • The process needs to be funded.

  • The end result has to be trusted.

  • The end result has to be accepted by regulators.

Given these parameters, there may be a role that blockchain could play in the question of trustworthiness, but regulation and funding may be more of an issue. To be open to anyone, the identity would have to be free, which means that it would have to be a charitable or philanthropic venture. Moreover, only after the solution was created and tested could regulators approve it. Whilst a fantastic goal, this version of self-sovereign identity would seem to be a long way off, if it is even possible at all.

It would be easy to finish the discussion there; this goal is not even on the horizon so why bother to consider it? However, the point raised does highlight another important issue - namely the lack of identity documentation that still affects millions of people around the world. This issue was one we raised in an excellent article by David Langellotti - ‘What  Does Your Identity mean to You?’ - which details the obstacles and problems that can arise when a person doesn’t have access to identity verification.

What is really needed is the ability of anyone, anywhere, to be able to establish and control their own identity so they participate in anything from finance to housing to travel. Identity and regulatory compliance are necessary to ensure safe and secure interactions between people, and lacking an identity will hold people back when they are not able to interact with regulated environments. This lack of identity is what Blockpass is tackling with the Blockpass Mobile App. Moving away from a state-issued, state-controlled identity to an inherent identity could be the future, and arguably the highest goal, but it’s not just a tech question - it’s also a social, political and regulatory question that will be long in the answering. For now, maybe a Blockpass ID can suffice.