To navigate well in a digital world, we must be able to easily and securely establish our digital identity. Traditionally, a username, password and some trivial arcana like our first pet’s name have been key pieces of information held by institutions to establish our digital identity. Unfortunately, this system has come at a high cost.
Trusting third parties to securely hold our personal data is a risky — and often losing — proposition. The number of hacks that have resulted in stolen personal data is staggering. In the top 15 data breaches, the personal data of 3.5 billion people have been stolen. And once our personal information is out, we cannot take it back. It becomes susceptible to use by nefarious actors for damaging purposes — an all too familiar scenario.
Fortunately, we can strengthen personal data security and resolve privacy concerns with decentralized identity solutions, such as self-sovereign identity, or SSI. The fundamental principle of SSI is that individuals are able to control how their own identities are used, shared and accessed, rather than third parties and central authorities. An SSI system creates ironclad digital wallets on a smartphone through decentralized blockchain technology that enables people to share identity information without compromising security.
Instead of relying on a third party to store personal data, SSI creates a layer of trust and safety by securely putting an individual’s personal data in their possession. People can choose to share personal data — in a limited and non-copyable way — through their smartphones. This process also gives the person who requested the data certainty that the shared data is accurate by seeing that it is verified by a trusted third party.
Interest in securely sharing personal data through SSI has greatly increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In efforts to reopen our societies and economies, solutions to carry and present our digital health information have been emerging. For example, leading companies in the industry are developing confidential and secure methods of certifying COVID-19 test results, which can allow businesses, industries and health organizations to confidently resume operations. Other innovators are working on digital certificates letting individuals prove they’ve recovered from the virus, or if they have tested positive or negative, helping individuals get back to normal life.
These solutions — also known as health passports — can provide verifiable proof that an individual has the antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19 or, once the vaccine is developed and released, been immunized. These passports allow those who are safe from contracting or spreading the virus to go back to their workplaces and public areas, as people can quickly present their verifiable and trusted health data. For example, businesses could scan a QR code on a phone at the entrance of a building. People can have peace of mind to freely move about society and begin a path back to normalcy.
The immediate need to share personal health data during the pandemic is proving to be a catalyst for interest in decentralized identity solutions. However, these solutions continue beyond health data. We can adopt them for a wide range of use cases, such as accessing financial and government services to enrolling in a university and even to replace government-issued library cards and/or drivers licenses.
The value of an easily distributable, verifiable and secure identity can hardly be overstated. Widespread adoption of solutions like SSI would remove the risk of usernames and passwords with logging into websites. And even when personal data gets hacked, a name, social security number, or date of birth do not have value because there is nothing criminals may do with that information without the necessary SSI. We are entering a world when thieves will not be able to open a bank account or take out a credit card under another person’s name.
Secure and easy-to-use decentralized identity will help everyone. It will have an especially positive impact on people in underrepresented communities, where victims of identity crimes have fewer resources for rebuilding their lives.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shift even more of our lives online, it is long past the time when our country should have SSI for all its citizens. Unfortunately, this is a golden age for identity crime — a crime that frequently harms people who can least bear it.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
Jonathan Johnson is the CEO of Overstock and the president of Medici Ventures.