A year like no other, in which much of life went online, made a compelling case for digital identity. Talk about “immunity passports, ”Privacy Protection contact tracking apps and even a possible move to online voting systems they all speak of the need for robust digital identities.
In July 2020, the World Economic Forum published a briefing paper on the risks and opportunities associated with ‘the internet of bodies’. From wearable technology to connected medical implants, it’s clear that our future digital identities could hold more data than we ever thought possible.
But the urge for digital identity also provokes a strong setback. The idea that we should hand over even more control over our data to governments and institutions worries many people.
Technology is the solution, not the problem
The answer to this problem does not lie in maintaining the status quo. In any case, the events of 2020 have underlined that our current approach to identity is not fit for purpose. As we go online more and more, the cracks in the existing system are only becoming more apparent.
Especially in the crypto space, there is a push towards anonymity as the data privacy solution. But this is not the answer either. It just isn’t possible to exist in the real world and remain completely anonymous. Taking a flight, paying online for goods and services, receiving medical treatment or driving are just a few examples of everyday actions that can be traced back to our identity.
Technology is the answer. Cryptographic solutions such as zero knowledge proofs resolving the tradeoff between anonymity and privacy on the one hand and being able to prove our identity when there is a legitimate need to do so, on the other.
A practical example could be the much-discussed idea of ’health passports’. Suppose you want to take a flight in early 2022. All the airline really needs to know is that you don’t pose a risk of infection to fellow passengers. You may also enter a country that requires immunity to yellow fever. You get your COVID-19 and yellow fever vaccines and the status is added to your digital ID, encrypted by zero-knowledge proofs.
You can now prove that you are safe to fly without disclosing where or when you had your vaccines, in which clinic or which doctor administered them. The airline can simply scan a QR code on your phone that confirms that you are not putting anyone else in danger.
While COVID-19 creates a compelling direct use case, there are far-reaching applications. If you want to buy age-restricted items such as alcohol or tobacco, you can generate a QR code to prove your age without having to show a copy of your ID documents. Likewise, if you wanted to rent a car or take out a loan, you can prove your driver’s license or credit history without giving out copies of personal information.
Prevent abuse and ensure compliance
As a basis for this system, there must be a fail-safe mechanism through which someone’s identity can be revealed if it is a legitimate legal necessity. This is necessary to ensure compliance with the relevant jurisdictions and to prevent the system from being abused by bad actors.
For example, if someone has used a rental car to rob a bank or even gotten a ticket, the authorities will want to know who they are. In this case, the zero knowledge certificates can be decrypted. By decentralizing this responsibility across multiple parties, you ensure that it is not subject to misuse or misuse and remove the single point of failure.
In 2021 we will start to see the beginning of a system where people can walk around with their digital identity in their pocket. It will be the beginning of the end for legacy document-based systems and the beginning of a new era of self-sovereignty over our data.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the sole ones of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
Beni Issembert is the chief marketing officer of the private enterprise-grade Concordium blockchain. He is also a published author, a member of the IOUR Foundation, and the former chief marketing officer of Beam Protocol.