Identity Protocols: one of web3’s most important primitives

Why decentralized identity is important and how it adds utility to communities.

Being human means, we seek to have a place in this world. Our identity trickles down into every aspect of our lives. Proof of our identity allows us to participate in activities such as opening bank accounts, buying property, and driving a car. However, centralized intermediaries issue, hold, and control our identifiers (pieces of information such as name, mobile number, email address) and attestations (claims made by one entity about another entity). Relying on these traditional identity management systems leaves us without control over who has access to our information and how much access said parties have.

Suppose we want to navigate life as an individual, staking values to access our own data. In that case, it is becoming increasingly essential to pivot towards a more self-sovereign identity. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Where is our place in this world? And how do we choose to manage our identity?

Identity is important to all internet participants, from individuals to projects to communities, organizations, and authorities. Decentralized identity systems built on public blockchains are one of the most critical primitives in the web3 ecosystem. It allows users to participate in a digital universe in a safe and reliable container. It removes reliance on centralized intermediaries and sets all parties involved free by allowing them to manage their identity-related information. It equally prohibits companies from making an undue profit from our data.

Digital identity provides a window and an anchor

Because decentralized identity harnesses blockchain technology, it creates trust between different parties and provides cryptographic guarantees to prove the validity of attestations. Decentralized identifiers (DIDs) are issued, held, and controlled by individuals, in contrast to traditional identifiers (such as your email address or legal name) relying on third parties such as governments and email providers. 

Not only are DIDs globally unique, cryptographically verifiable, and resolvable with high availability, they can be associated with various entities, including people, organizations, or government institutions. This is because they are stored on blockchains or peer-to-peer networks.

An everyday internet user accessing DIDs improves people’s experience in the online world by creating immutable trust and verifiable data. Communities are solidified to be more equitable because users can trust who they are speaking to, knowing who sits on the other side is who they claim to be. Their identity has not been stolen or spoofed, and their claims are verified.

Decentralized identity answers the onslaught of sybil attacks by enabling anti-sybil mechanisms to identify when one individual human is pretending to be multiple humans to game or spam a system. One-person-one-vote is an essential part of the foundation for a fair voting system. If we cannot create a system where we can trust whoever is on the other side of the voting screen, then the system’s integrity has failed. 

The challenges of digital identity protocols

Throughout its evolution, the internet has produced rapid growth of identifiers, sparking the beginning of decentralized identity registries beyond governments. Yet, it caused a problematic “digital identity sprawl” across the web because we have had to create a unique account for each service. The Identity Provider (IdP) was a stepping stone solution to this sprawl. Self-sovereign identity technologies (non-bureaucratic identity management through DID and Verified Credentials) go a step further than IdPs, giving individuals ownership and control over their identities without intervening authorities. In social spaces, an idea was pioneered by the Augmented Social Network whitepaper from 2003, having our social claims transferred away from a central authority that creates a platformless social space. “That is, by the simple fact of carrying these private credentials, I can allow other people with the same credentials to contact me, without previously needing to accept them to my social network.” (Motivating the Case for Decentralized Social Identity: Part Two)

How is this technologically possible? Blockchain allows for verifiable ownership over data without having to reveal personally identifiable information. But many blockchains currently exist as isolated domains; therefore, interoperability and the ability to manage data across multiple chains come with their challenges. Ideally, a bridge would possess three qualities: 1) trustless (maintaining the same level of security as the base chain), 2) extensible (usable across multiple chains), 3) data agnostic (able to transfer any type of data supported by chains. Unfortunately, existing blockchain bridges cannot meet all three criteria – the interoperability trilemma. Some level of compromise always exists.

Blockchains offer a way to establish truth without needing trust. – Ruben Merre

The same principles apply to dApps and communities. In all cases, Gitcoin is providing tools to prevent digital services from having to sacrifice privacy as a workaround. It is imperative to create a secure reputation. We’re working towards a digital world where the onboarding process becomes more accessible (and safer) for communities and dApps, and where they are protected against sybil attacks. 

Decentralized identity allows for trustworthy, verified interactions between users and communities. Our personal and social identity defines who we are. We should be able to collect verifications of our various memberships and experiences to form our online reputations as easily as we can aggregate physical documents to build our offline ones. Having a defined, secure, and cryptographically verifiable place in the digital world will allow this to happen without resorting to the extractive data models that defined tech’s history. 

Identity is inherently both fragmentary (there is no singular and exhaustive explication of the “who”) and social (“you” are not an island unto yourself, but instead a series of socially-defined positions). – Motivating the Case for Decentralized Social Identity: Part One.

– Team Gitcoin

Thank you to MathildaDV and Julia for creating this piece.