Portrait sketch of Albert Isola

The digital world will need a more efficient method for a citizen to manage their credentials. Self-sovereign identity gives individuals control over their identity and what data they would like to share with other parties.

In today’s world, we primarily rely on physical methods of identification as a means to prove our identity. The origins of photographic identification date back to the late 19th century when they were required for driver’s licences. However, more than a century later, we are still using the same outdated practice of matching our photo ID with our physical appearance to verify who we are. Why is this the case when modern technology exists to alleviate this need?

With the widespread adoption of physical identification, opportunities for identity-related crimes have been created. It is regrettably commonplace to see identity theft, the sale of counterfeit IDs, and even ‘catfishing’ (where a person creates a fake online persona, often with another person’s identity, to target a specific victim) in today’s world. The fact that such private personal information can be stored on small plastic cards raises further concerns, as they can be easily damaged or misplaced.

For example, an individual who has lost their documentation abroad may need to remain in a foreign country and go through the process of applying for a new or temporary travel document from their embassy. Meanwhile, whoever finds the lost or stolen item has access to valuable, private information associated with its owner.

Equally, if a person were to be the victim of a house fire, they risk the entirety of their vital documentation being destroyed forever. We regularly read tragic stories of people, for example, fleeing conflict and entering new countries having left all documentation behind them. The reality is that we have been relying on paper documents and plastic cards to verify who we are and confirm our credentials for too long. Therefore, a new solution is needed and I believe that self-sovereign identities (SSIs) could certainly be part of the answer.

Digital credentials

As the development of blockchain technology continues to progress, we have seen new technology-based solutions that can replace existing forms of identification.

As mentioned, SSIs are a more efficient method for a citizen to manage their credentials and these are held in a digital wallet. These digital wallets can hold documents and certifications verified by accepted third parties, such as government agencies or universities. The crucial difference is that this information is decentralised, protected and under the control of the individual, which verifies the validity of such personal information.

In contrast to physical identity cards, SSI data is recoverable, secure and scalable across the globe. Users can control their IDs, passports and digital assets all from digital wallets stored on their smartphones or computers. Widespread adoption of this technology could see identity fraud become outdated, as SSIs are cryptographically associated with each individual’s unique crypto wallet address. As identity credentials are stored in the individual’s wallet and have the ability to be recognised across different situations, they will potentially build public trust and become the main proof of identity for users, just like our physical driving licences or passports are now. Fraudsters are unlikely to be able to fabricate a false identity, as SSIs cannot be replicated.

In our everyday lives, SSIs also have the potential to transform online verification systems and payments as we know them. Individuals could potentially pay for items without identity verification from mobile banking apps, which currently act as an extra process layer when shopping online. On social media, a single unified login tied to your SSI could be used across all platforms, eliminating the need for multiple passwords. No longer will you have to keep track of multiple passwords or go through tedious ‘forgot your password’ processes.

The implementation of authenticated SSIs by social media companies could even see an end to cyber bullying from those who hide behind false profiles. By removing the potential for creating a facade, users may be deterred from spreading hate speech linked to their SSI, given the risk of being identified and pursued. Currently, it is commonplace to see hateful comments online; but we may finally have a solution to stop or deter this with the use of SSIs.

In the case that a person moves abroad, an SSI could also mean that their medical records transfer with them, migrating to their new doctor instantly instead of being fragmented and siloed across jurisdictions. This same concept can be applied to the changing of professions, educational institutions and many other use cases. We must strive to see blockchain technology integrated into more of these everyday processes in the coming years as a decentralised alternative to hard copies of personal information.

Putting users back in control

Arguably, SSI also gives individuals control over their own identity and what data they would like to share with other parties. As it stands, a large amount of our data lies in the hands of centralised ‘big tech’ companies, such as Meta, Google and Amazon. For example, when creating a social media profile, platforms request your date of birth, email address and nationality, which is then often shared with third parties for commercial gain. The individual is unaware of what and to whom their data is being sold.

Arguably, self-sovereign identities give individuals control over their own identity and what data they would like to share with other parties

The personal and valuable data that an individual shares is now used by someone else who effectively bought the rights to it. Facebook, a platform with nearly three billion monthly active users, is no stranger to data-related scandals. Just this August, it settled a multimillion-dollar lawsuit after being caught giving Cambridge Analytica access to the private data of millions of users. This is just one high-profile example to highlight data privacy concerns and supports the need for alternatives like SSI to be embraced globally.

Even when data is not being sold, we cannot guarantee that it is being protected sufficiently. In the past year, the total estimated cost of cyber attacks rose to more than $6.9bn in the US alone, and one in five global organisations suffered a ransomware attack. SSI would give users full control over their data, who has access to it, and what data they share with other parties, protecting against high-profile breaches of privacy.

Consider the release of information that comes when checking into a hotel. Does a receptionist really need to see your address, passport and other personal information to verify that you booked a hotel room? Is it necessary for them to see private information, such as your age and date of birth?

In today’s world, people are eager to avoid sharing personal details without there being a good reason. Showing a complete stranger your address while you are out of the house can leave someone extremely vulnerable. SSI fixes this issue by verifying your identity to others without revealing other aspects of your private life. The opportunity to store your information on a decentralised network, such as the blockchain, places power back in the hands of the individual as they can choose what data they would like to share and with whom.

The adoption of SSI has already begun across numerous industries and nations across the world. The Californian government recently gave citizens the option to have records such as birth and death certificates delivered on the blockchain. This decision will provide a safer and cheaper alternative to delivering these documents by mail and reduces the risk of them being stolen or lost.

Similarly, the UK also recently approved a bill that could see official documents being stored on the blockchain. The decentralised nature of blockchain storage is undoubtedly safer than its centralised alternative. For example, after taking a trip to the hospital, UK medical records are kept on file in a single location. If hit with a cyber attack, this information would be compromised and risks being lost forever. However, if stored on the blockchain, data is spread across several data points ensuring security, recoverability and that the individual is protected.

There is still plenty of progress to be made before we see the widespread adoption of SSI. As blockchain technology continues to develop, so will our confidence in the benefits of applications like SSI. In Gibraltar, the government is actively working to issue certified documents to their citizens on the blockchain. The logical next step could be the elimination of the need for physical ID cards, vehicle ownership registration and driving licences to support the future of SSI.

Albert Isola is minister for digital and financial services, Gibraltar


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