The promise of managing identity on the blockchain

Blockchain, the secure distributed ledger technology first established in order to way bitcoin ownership, has taken on a number of new roles in recent years tracking anything of value from diamonds to real estate deeds to contracts. The blockchain offers the promise of a trusted record that can reduce scam. Some industry experts say that over the coming years, it could be used to control identity information in a more secure fashion.

As we have seen, just last week with the massive Equifax hacker, our personal information is highly vulnerable in online databases in their current form. The fact is that whenever we have to identify ourselves, we are forced to present a variety of information to prove we are who we say we are, whether that’s to register for an online service, to cross international borders or even prove you are old enough to drinking at a bar.

The argument goes that if our identity were on the blockchain, it would devote us more control over the information collected, and with correct application allow us to present only the minimum amount of information a dedicated party needs to identify us. That could be your date of birth at a bar, your credit score at a bank or a unique identifier to access an online service.

It’s unclear if the blockchain can be that identity panacea that some have suggested, but there are a range of opinions on the matter.

Yes, it’s happening

Of the experts we contacted, merely one was fully enthusiastic about blockchain as an identity tool. Jerry Cuomo, IBM Fellow and VP of blockchain technologies, assures blockchain already having a big impact as people demand more control of their identities. He says that we are constantly being asked to share personal information to access places or info or to do business with companies — and that each of these actions puts us at risk for identity stealing. He believes the solution to this problem could lie on the blockchain.

“Imagine a world where you are in direct control of your personal information; a world which allows you restriction and control how much information you share while retaining the ability to transact in the world. This is self-sovereign identity, and it is already here. Blockchain is the underlying technology paving the path to self-sovereign identity through decentralized networks. It ensures privacy and trust, where transactions are secure, authenticated and verifiable and endorsed by relevant, permissioned participants, ” Cuomo explained. In fact, he says that he’s already find businesses and governments beginning to establish and use these networks to meet citizen demand and deliver the promise of self-sovereign identity.

No, probably not

It sounds pretty good to hear Cuomo describe it, yet not everyone is enthusiastic as he is, seeing many obstacles to using the blockchain for identity purposes. Steve Wilson, an analyst at Constellation Research, who has studied the blockchain extensively has serious reservations about it as an identity management system.

“Identity is not going to move to the blockchain in any big style( not as we know it ). Blockchains were designed to solve problems quite different from identity management( IDM ). We need to remember that the classic blockchain is an elaborated system that allows total strangers to nevertheless exchange real value reliably. It works without identity and without trust. So it’s simply illogical to think such a mechanism could have anything to offer identity, ” Wilson explained.

He adds, “The public blockchains purposely and proudly shirk third parties, but in most cases, your identity is nothing without a third party who vouches for you in some way. Blockchain is great for some things, but it’s not sorcery, and it just wasn’t designed for the IDM problem space.”

Eve Maler, who works at identity management firm ForgeRock, which landed an $88 million investment last week, also finds the prospect highly unlikely for a variety of practical reasons. “Identity will not move to the blockchain if this entails personal data will be put on a public permissionless blockchain( distributed ledger technology in its purest kind ), as this is now widely deemed bad practice, ” she said.

She added, “The “distributed nodes” component of the technology is valuable for architectures where trust in a central authority is difficult or undesirable to establish, but can be challenging where it is desirable to record sensitive information because of the increased assault surface( every node has a transcript of everything) and resulting increased privacy considerations.”

It depends

Then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle. They aren’t ready to write it off, but they watch a lot of obstacles along the way to implementing it, or see it as a part of a broader ecosystem of identity tools, rather than a full replacing to what we have now.

Charles Race, chairwoman of worldwide field operations at cloud identity firm Okta, which ran public this year, thinks it’s possible blockchain will emerge. He foresees a similar situate of use instances as Cuomo, but assures a lot of obstacles that stand in the route of using the blockchain to implement identity management broadly moving forward.

“A trusted entity will need to establish some legal and enforceable rules and policies for how it all works, they’ll need to make it easy for the average person to use securely, and they’ll need to convince a critical mass of people and service providers to adopt and trust the ID — all while procuring an economically feasible business model. Some organizations are uniquely positioned to solve all of these chicken-and-egg issues at once and bring this big idea to life — first among them are our citizen-facing government agencies, ” Race explained. But he adds, “The trouble with this idea is that a universal ID poses dangers to privacy and hence[ could] encounter significant political opposition.”

Andre Durand, CEO at Ping Identity, an identity management firm that was sold for a reported $600 millionto Vista Equity Partners last year, says it’s not likely to happen as a full replacing over the next five years, but it could begin to play a role in identity. “What is much more likely is that the things Distributed Ledger Technology is uniquely designed for, maintaining accurate records in a distributed system, will become part of the identity management ecosystem and help improve aspects of it, ” he says.

Ian Glazer, an identity industry expert says it really about choosing the right tool for the job, but he doesn’t inevitably ensure there ever being one answer that fits every identity scenario including blockchain.

“To ask if identity will move to blockchain is not the right topic. Better to ask will use instances emerge that blockchain-related technologies are uniquely qualified to solve. Likely there will be some. But just like relational databases, LDAP and object databases , no one storage/ retrieval mechanism has turned out to be the single “right” tool for the job, ” Glazer told TechCrunch.

Like any emerging technology, there are going to be a range of sentiments on its viability. Utilizing the blockchain as an identity management system is no different. It will probably begin to take over some role over the next five years because the promise is just so great, but how extensive that will be depends on how the industry solves some of the outstanding issues.

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