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Is it really you? What Nick Offerman’s photo tells us about the future of online identity.

Previously, I shared how the blockchain is being used to solve issues related to identity fraud and security. There is another side of identity management that’s being addressed: providing proof of a digital identity.

How do we know people are who they say they are online, and how can the blockchain prevent false identities? I’ll look at how people are currently proving their identities online and how blockchains can provide a secure and reliable solution.

What is an online identity and how is it verified?

A digital identity requires people have a unique identifier, such as an account name or handle, and attributes that tell more about them. For example, a LinkedIn profile is an attribute that tells what someone’s job title is.

Currently, people hold many different identities all over the internet on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, on cloud software and shopping sites, and more. To create a new account on one of these sites, they typically require some kind of verification, whether that’s as simple as providing an email address, uploading a photo of a driver’s license or logging in through a social media site or Google account.

Reddit AMA

Since anyone can upload any photo as their profile picture and many users choose to go by anonymous or pseudonymous names, it can be hard to tell fact from fiction. To combat this, Reddit created verification instructions for their AMA (Ask Me Anything) events, which are Q&As held on the social media platform with celebrities and professionals. As you can see below, comedian Nick Offerman posted an image verifying his AMA event and username to prevent participants from following fraudulent responses from similar account names.

Keybase

With Keybase, which provides a public key directory and file sharing service, users can verify their account by triggering a message to their Twitter account from Keybase. Their Keybase account shows their Twitter verification.


In this case, a digital signature from Keybase is stored inside Twitter.

If someone isn’t recognizable as a celebrity, how else can their identity be verified online? Posting a photo like Offerman did isn’t as trustworthy when a group can’t agree that’s what the person looks like. It gets even more complicated with brands.  Keybase’s Twitter verification makes it harder to falsify account information, but it is still possible for a hacker to manipulate the signal because Twitter data is stored on a central server. As this thread in Quora asking users to share photos to verify their identity shows, there is a need for a better verification system.

Blockchain may provide a solution.

How blockchain technology can improve account verification

Blockchain organizations propose that account holders control their own identities—a concept known as a self-sovereign identity—instead of divvying bits of personal information up across many different organizations. In this way, an account holder can verify their public online identity against the secure and encrypted blockchain.

Evernym aims to provide a solution–named Sovrin–that will allow any person, organization, or thing to instantly verify that they are who they claim to be. It acts like a password manager, such as 1Password or Lastpass, for an identity in that you can use this one account to verify others instead of needing to fill out new account applications.

For example, if a local business leader wanted to verify the validity of tweets tagging their business handle, they could verify an address claim using Sovrin. The Twitter account holder wouldn’t need to disclose information beyond their handle and address, but the trust created by the proof Sovrin provides would help the business owner know if they’re dealing with real feedback or trolls and bots.

Civic, an organization I covered in my previous article about identity security on the blockchain, is another player in this space. Their Secure ID allows users to prove their identity across a number of platforms using a smartphone.

In a similar line, uPort enables users to verify accounts and digitally sign smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain. Through the mobile application, individuals and enterprises can log into other applications without the need for a password and their data is securely stored across the blockchain. Importantly, uPort also has a controller contract function to help users retrieve their information in case they lose their phone.

uPort has launched a digital identity system in the City of Zug in Switzerland, which requires users to download the app and scan a QR code on the city’s website to begin the registration process. Once this is complete, they have 14 days to complete the registration process in person. While this is not as seamless a process as being able to prove your identity online to complete registration, the new system allows users to access e-services without needing to create several accounts or remember passwords. Their data can also not be changed, as it’s encrypted on the blockchain.

uPort and Evernym have joined Microsoft and other companies to create the Digital Identity Foundation, which aims to create a universal decentralized identity network. This could potentially open up a global digital identity, which would allow people control over and access to important things like their medical records while travelling overseas.

 

Whether flexible signals, public-key cryptography, or on blockchains, identity will be a key area of development in our digital future.

About the Author

Josh Davis is a Strategist with ITFO Communications and Managing Editor on the blockchain and cryptocurrency research team. He has over a decade of experience in financial services and technology communications, helping clients implement tangible, multi-year global programs by leveraging future trends. His research on emerging technologies has been quoted in top publications, including The New York Times, Tech Crunch and Forbes.
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