Agrello blog

Decentralized self-sovereign identity

Blockchain is being used in experiments in many different fields. However, outside of the financial realm, the most impactful of the cases using the technology is self-sovereign identity. It presents the idea of Decentralized Identity or DID, which is closely related to self-sovereign identity or SSI. National digital identities have a limited capacity of scalability, whereas DID seeks to bring digital identity to the international level. DID is one of the solutions that could bring us to the next era of being online. This article discusses the idea behind DID while technical implementations might vary.
Hando Rand, Head of Innovation/Co-Founder
Hando Rand, Head of Innovation/Co-Founder
March 25, 2021

The technology

There are a few big decentralized ID platform providers like Hyperledger and Microsoft. First of all, one must note that the notion of decentralized and self-sovereign does not mean absolute independence of any centralized organization. This is not the system for cleaning a criminal record or bad credit score. The main benefit of these DID platforms is interoperability across national borders. It is to unify the digital identity providers worldwide.

In a previous article I explained the concept of PKI and CA. Although it is supposed to be the ultimate system of electronic trust, the reality is that CAs do not collaborate very well. Even when following the same ISO and ETSI or NIST standards, they still have different technological ideologies. One supports one-time passwords, one server supported signing, and the other chip-cards. What is very common with them? They are very protective against losing control.

What CAs most importantly do is issuing certificates, which simply saying is issuing digital identities. What DID does, is globally centralize digital identity issuance on a decentralized platform. CAs can all participate in such a platform with computing power, but no more can they make independent technological decisions. CAs would have to be operating only as identity verifiers. Control over the digital identity issuance becomes shared.

Another important change in the system is that identity certificates become something similar to blockchain wallets. Instead of having a certain way of identity verification for the certificate, the holders of the blockchain DID wallets can decide, which verifications are important for them and choose the attestations they need for certain errands or e-services. These blockchain wallets are not wallets for money anymore, but to hold your driver’s license, academic degree, ID-card, passport, etc. all under the control of one digital identity. From this wallet the person can also choose what type of information would he or she pull out of the wallet to show to a third party.

Of course, the operation of the wallet requires a private key. DID platforms do not provide exact systems for personal private key protection. This is another thing to work out. If each end-user app has different private key protection standards, it would hinder the benefit of the interoperability of such a platform. The latter is a problem I see that is easy to solve, as the end-user providers come with new systems and create new habits from the get-go.

The Agrello team has been brainstorming about the possibilities of implementing a DID platform for the basis of our digital signing. However, it is not that easy, as we have seen that technical expertise can be endless, while the unsurmountable problems come from society as the following explains.

A massive hurdle

Estonia has the best and most used digital identity system in the world. This is my opinion and I am eager to have someone argue with me about that and show a better example. Before tackling cross-border digital identity challenges, most of the countries in the world do not even have a national digital identity system, which is also used by the private sector for log-ins and digital signing. The problem seems to be politics and the fear of change.

Some of you might relate to noticing when a traffic light on an intersection appears after someone has sustained a major injury, although the locals had seen the potential of that happening way before. That is probably the problem why e-governance and digital identity on a national level are not emerging. Estonia has statistics to show a massive benefit from a proper national mobile device based digital identity after many years of operating, but for other nations' political level there is not enough negative impact from the paper and office-based governance as it is today. Politics seem to be more focused on fixing what’s wrong rather than proving that something could be so much better even though the current situation is also not dreadful. After all, it is much easier for a citizen to notice a heavy tax burden rather than how much resources it takes to declare taxes on paper. That’s where politics could shift the paradigm.

I might be too opinionated in the way the political sphere takes technological decisions and I might be wrong. However, what is a fact is that ID documents are issued to us by our national government. ID documents cannot just be shown online to an automated system. They need a digital version. Because people travel, they need an internationally usable digital version. DID is the potential platform for that, but for DID to work, it needs integrations and collaboration from official document issuers. For an international digital identity platform to succeed, the adoption of national ID documents is the first priority. This does not happen without a political driving force.

Politics should be driven by public opinion, but it is normal for an average citizen not to see the benefits of something that does not exist. I urged my mother to start using Estonian Mobile-ID after years of convincing. Because it was a new habit to get used to but after she accepted this habit, she would never go back due to the massive benefits this new habit brought. These are the places where politicians should, without public pressure, show people the benefits of something new by putting it into practice. There might be quite some more votes to win over from such a risky but brave act.

The topic is starting to pick up though. The pandemic raised several problems with paper-based and face-to-face processes. The necessity of proper digitization is seen even more. The record number of cyber crime complaints last year and mass manipulation through social media has urged organizations to work on systems that can assure more trust. In Europe, NFC chips are becoming popular and a company called Read ID is actually showing success in providing a cross-border integration platform that utilizes the NFC chips from many different nations.

Secure and reliable internet which can assure trust is our dream and Agrello will always be moving towards it.

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