Tag Archives: identity

Blockchain, Digital Signatures and Identity

It seems anytime I talk to people about the last few years of my professional life, they ask me about how I see traditional X.509 based Public Key Infrastructure and Blockchain technologies intersecting in the future. I think the most obvious intersection between these two technologies is related to contracts.

When cryptography is used for electronic signatures, X.509 certificates are at the core of how signatures are applied. Today there are numerous startups looking at how to squeeze bitcoin into future solutions in this area:

RFC3161 Timestamping Proof Of Existence and Bit Proof
PAdES PDF Signatures BlockSign
X.509 Certificates OneName, World Citizenship, NameCoin, NetKi, etc.

In the United States these alternate Blockchain approaches do not have any regulatory barriers to acceptance, but outside the U.S. they don’t really have much of a chance since most countries specify which specific technologies and processes must be used to qualify as a legal signature.

As such I generally look at these products (at least in the frame of contracts) as solutions looking for problems. The core issue being that they offer limited, if any, material benefit over the existing technological approaches which have both a history and legal framework to support them.

This is particularly a large issue when you consider how global commerce has become, and that each jurisdiction has very different ideas of what constitutes a valid digital signature and contract.

With that said, I am a big believer in the idea of Smart Contracts and do see value in Proof of Existence, but they are features in broader solutions and not products in unto themselves.

But what about the blockchain and Identity Management? When looking at this we first have to remember that at its core Bitcoin is a public ledger — a public repository. The only identity related problem that requires a public repository is discovery of information, more specifically discovery of information that can not be easily discovered in context.

A great example of this is a Bitcoin wallet address. It is both impractical and unreasonable to expect users to pass these values around without error, which is why most of the identity solutions built on Blockchain technology focus on this problem. This is not so different from the problem of discovery of S/MIME or PGP certificates for encrypted mail.

The reality is that one does not need the blockchain to solve this problem, in-fact Facebook recently announced that they are now letting you publish your PGP key on your profile. There is nothing stopping them or any of the other public directory services users already use from publishing other similar values.

I would even go so far to argue the use of Bitcoin given the size of the Blockchain is a liability in these scenarios. Today the Blockchain is over 30GB in size and with over 60% of internet usage being mobile this means (at least for peer to peer cases) one would need to rely on something like Simple Payment Verification (SPV) for mobile devices, which inherently places some trust on a node anyway.

The Bitcoin purist would argue that any use of a trusted third-party is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Here is the kicker though — when it comes to bootstrapping trust you have to trust something/someone and this is especially true when it comes to verifying a legal identity. The net of which is since you have to trust a centralized repository, you do not strictly need a Blockchain based approach.

Long term I see us moving to a model where the federated concept of identity we use with consumer services today is extended to government and business services. We already see this happening with service offerings and the recent work in the EU around eIDAS and the US with NSTIC it seems that this trend won’t be slowing anytime soon.

If that is true then, these Blockchain based identity solutions will either pivot into new solutions or their future will be inextricably tied to the Bitcoin wallet address discovery problem.

Has identity verification on the web become a glass ceiling?

As of 2013 here are 7.125 billion people in the world (World Bank) 39% of which are using the Internet (ITU). 318.9 million of these people live in the United States where as many as 74% use the Internet (Census).

Increasingly these people are accessing services that require them to prove their identity over the internet. This manifests itself in many ways, commonly in the United States this is done through use of Knowledge Based Authentication (KBA) where knowledge of details from users credit reports are leveraged to authenticate users. This approach has several serious problems:

  • In the United States alone 29% of people have no credit history at all (Gallup) making this approach inaccessible for these users,
  • A number likely much larger than this have such limited credit histories this approach to authentication is ineffective for them,
  • Numerous studies show the usability characteristics of these solutions are poor and result in user abandonment,
  • The limited data available in these credit reports and the way KBA is integrated into these services reduces both the security and privacy each time the information is used.

As a result services often times attempt to leverage a person’s pre-existing relationships with other services such as banks. This approach also have serious failings:

  • In the United States 7.7% of people are unbanked (FDIC) and 20% are underbanked,
    World-wide the number of unbanked is 35%,
  • For liability and business interest reasons almost no financial services organizations offer federated identity services for their customers,
  • When banks are used a concept of a “penny-test” is often used requiring disclosing sufficient information to enable them to potentially draw electronic checks from the persons account,
  • The infrequent nature of this transaction and inherent complexity of the task again has poor usability characteristics and results in transaction abandonment,
  • This leaves services attempting to rely on binding multiple social “identities” together to authenticate the user. Unfortunately these social “identities” are often no more than pseudonyms which do not meet the regulatory obligations that many businesses and agencies must meet. Additionally the binding of these identities together reduces the users privacy significantly in that it becomes trivial to track activities of that user across services.

This situation creates a socioeconomic glass ceiling where those who can not participate in these authentication systems do not have access to the lower cost and generally higher value services available on the Internet.

Additionally there is still a class of transactions where the existing mechanisms do not work (such as a person establishing their first bank account) and others that require the disclosure of more information than necessary to meet the authentication requirements (for example age verification).

Outside the United States the situation is even more grim where the the numbers of the unbanked are significantly higher and often privacy regulations prevent the use of many of the above approaches. As a result many services can not be brought online and those that can commonly rely on the lowest common denominator – proof of control of a simple email address.

This problem is made even more complicated when services need to verify professional accreditations or roles within an organization.

What do you think? Is this a real problem?

I think it is. I also think this is a solvable problem (for some value of solvable) but as of yet I do not see anyone building solutions that address this problem of initial identity verification effectively.