Continuum Loop

We Should Embrace the Ethical Implementation of Digital Identity

Digital Identity Convenience

by Christine Martin

I just had two different but related things happen with my 18-year-old daughter regarding her identity…

This week, I took her to the DriveTest Centre to get her G1 (driving license). Since she’s 18, I left it up to her to ensure she had all the necessary documentation. She brought her Ontario Health Card and Canadian Passport. When it was her turn, she went to the counter and presented her documents. The representative looked over the papers and let us know the passport was expired, and thus she could not accept it. She asked if she had another piece of identification, like a birth certificate. Of course, she did not have this with her. As we left the DriveTest Centre, I mentioned that we wouldn’t have had this problem if she had a digital wallet that could store her identity documents. She would have had all her credentials on her phone to prove who she was. She told me, in short, that it wasn’t a better alternative because she just watched a movie on digital identity, and we are all going to turn into tracked and controlled robots of Big Brother if we let that happen.  

My daughter opened a new bank account online, but she still has to present herself in person to finalize things. With a digital wallet holding credentials and verification via biometrics, she could have completed that step online and had access to the new account immediately. Why does the bank offer the option to open an account online?


You’re already at risk


Maybe it’s because of the nature of my job in decentralized identity consulting, but lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of conspiracy theories on social media about Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI). People criticize the way it’s being implemented and warn about the negative consequences it will have. It’s almost as if people don’t realize that organizations are already monitoring and influencing us and that Google and social media algorithms have been instrumental in this.

Right now, Facebook owns your identity and essentially decides what you see in your feed; and Google tracks your every move. These companies claim our data as their asset and make money off it.

Many acts of ‘digital misdirection’ are happening before our very eyes every day, and we are starting to become more aware of them. Every action we perform online has become a piece of data which is used to coerce and constrain our digital experiences. We see it in the ads that show up across all our devices following an Internet search, in the ever-narrower set of content we’re shown on our social media sites, and in the increasingly compelling, and sometimes spooky, product recommendations we receive. This digital misdirection goes on to the point that we begin to wonder whether we can still exercise any free will online at all.” – The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism

What if you could monetize your identity? What if you could share extra preference data with Facebook and allow them to share that data with a third party for a fee? You could charge $0.50 for every additional set of preference data you share. Self-Sovereign identity can give you control over your data and generate passive income. Why wouldn’t you pick this option?


How can we trust them to be honest stewards of our data?


A lawsuit has been filed against Google that stems from investigations dating back to 2018 by Princeton University and the Associated Press. The lawsuit alleges that “Google falsely led consumers to believe that changing their account and device settings would allow customers to protect their privacy and control what personal data the company could access. The truth is that contrary to Google’s representations it continues to systematically surveil customers and profit from customer data.

What else are these media giants doing that we haven’t figured out yet? How Bad is the Global Data Privacy Crisis? And you want them holding your information? I’m confused.

Platforms like Facebook and Google aren’t fond of losing access to people’s data; having less control over the user data makes it far less valuable for monetization. I’m not sure why people aren’t more concerned with this aspect.  I can’t help but come up with my own conspiracy theory: the Facebook algorithm suppresses positive news and advancement in SSI while pushing misinformation.  With digital identity, you (the holder) will be able to control your identity and decide which credentials to share with whom.  That’s a significant loss for big tech.


SSI Architects care about privacy and security


I saw a Facebook post shared with a photo of a copy of The World Economic Forum – Advancing Digital Agency report with the quote, “Digital ID, it isn’t just a rumour, people. WEF wants to control everyone’s life. SHARE“. The WEF report is more about protecting users, the challenges of broken trust, and data intermediaries instead of controlling everyone’s life.  There are many benefits to Digital Identity, particularly with vulnerable and marginalized groups (refugees). 

We care about privacy and security; we have the same concerns. Organizations like Evernym/Avast want to embed eIDAS in their products, but only if it addresses these four problems and maximizes opportunities. 

Something crucial for laymen to remember is that governments cannot build and implement these frameworks without help from the private sector. That includes SSI consultants like us here at Continuum Loop. We’re regular members of society; we have friends, family and children that we care about and want to protect: now and in the future. We are involved because we care and are aware of the negative implications and aspects; we can help mitigate these factors, build these frameworks, and make them beneficial for all.


Hold, own, and control your credentials/identity


Digital ID is nothing new; it’s been around for a while in one form or another. However, the COVID pandemic has caused a “digital acceleration” event where our reliance on technology has catapulted forward. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption in many ways, like the increased use of QR codes and contactless payment to mitigate the risk of exposure to the virus. In particular, it has helped to raise awareness of the need for such a system and its benefits.

You will take back control of your identity and hold it. Not Facebook, not Google, and you will decide what credentials to share on a need-to-know basis. We don’t have to be scared of the shift; we have to ensure the architecture is built ethically for all.


The Privilege of Hesitation


We are privileged to be able to be so critical of these emerging technologies. We take for granted that the college or university we graduated from will always be there or that our government institutions will always be in place and functioning to provide us with the services we need. I can’t help but wonder how a current refugee, who had no time to take paper documents, would feel to have the ability to easily prove their identity while starting over in a new county. All we have to do is look to Ukraine and see why centralized Identity systems can cause a problem.

Many Ukrainians have been displaced and need to apply for new documents to be able to travel and access services in other countries. The centralized identity system can make it difficult for people to get their records. As different groups seek refuge, they face unique challenges. Many Ukrainians of Roma origin, for example, suffer discrimination in Ukraine and may not have any documentation indicating their identity or citizenship. Being undocumented as you flee conflict and navigate foreign countries can lead to many dangers like human trafficking. Desperation can lead to refugees bribing government officials to get their documents. 

In contrast, Estonia has a practical but highly-centralized digital identity system that makes it easier for people to access the various services they need. While it is centralized and questionable from a privacy and surveillance perspective, this system allows for secure and transparent transactions that make citizens’ and e-residents’ lives more convenient and secure. The Estonian government has been using this technology since 2001, and it has helped them become one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world. 

While this implementation of digital identity is not ideal for many reasons, it’s a step in the right direction, and we can build from it. The flaws within the system (e.g. privacy, centralization) can be handled.


Rebuilding Trust


These technologies cannot move forward without the general public’s adoption. Organizations must rebuild trust for this to happen. Those building the framework architecture are fully aware of this challenge; the general public has lost confidence in the way organizations hold and use their online information.

There are many possible ways to rebuild trust. One way is to give people more control over their information. With Self-Sovereign Identity, they can choose what information they share and with whom, and they can also see how their data is being used and change their settings accordingly. 

Another way to rebuild trust is to ensure that the technology is secure. People need to know that their information is safe when shared online. Organizations need to ensure that they use the latest security technologies, Blockchain Technology, to protect people’s information.

Finally, people need to know that the organizations they trust with their information are reputable and honest. Organizations need to be transparent about using people’s information and their steps to protect it, and Verifiable Credentials will facilitate this.

In a world where corporations and governments are constantly harvesting our data, it is more important than ever to take back control of our identities. Self-sovereign identity is a new way of thinking about identity that puts the individual in charge of their information. We should embrace it and use it to create a more just and equitable society. Follow us on social media or dive into our past blog posts to learn more.

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