August 30, 2016

Block Chain - Meet Identity - Part 1

I've long since been fascinated by identity. Whether that be in the practical sense "I am Derek" or the technological sense "I certify by thusforth magical means that this is my code," identity holds the keys to many things. You might be familiar with things like PGP Privacy, where you encrypt and sign a message and its contents and only the intended recipient can decrypt and read it. You might be familiar with those maddeningly slow but way cool pin and chip things on your credit card that promise to at least reduce the frequency of stolen credit and identity (the five instances of mine last year not withstanding). These are both related to identity - proving you are who you claim so that you can take an action. The most compelling overlay between identity and technology really comes in to play when we talk about human trafficking. Wait wah? Yep - human trafficking.

The human misery that comes from the ability to hide the true identity of a human being can be traced back thousands of years. By denying the ability of a human to easily prove who they are, government services are easily denied, the ability to find someone is made unbelievably more difficult, and it forces the victim to remain in anonymous obscurity, even if they want to be found. If identity could be proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt in a way that cannot be forged or altered by any government or entity, we'd be on to something unique, something special that could really change the world for the better. Before you get all 666 on me, don't mistake capability with intent. Certainly the devil (see what I did there?) is in the details and best left for theorists and ethicists. But from a capability perspective, we could begin to reverse a tide of human suffering simply by helping victims identify themselves properly.

How does this relate to the Block Chain? Recall the notion of PGP - the capability to prove someone is who they say they are with very little chance of that proof being forged. Now make it easier, make it more portable, make it immutable, make it incapable of being tampered with or destroyed. Enter Block Chain based identity. Take the concept of a person: their name, their location, their job, their social media profiles (which are treated with more care than a SSN in this day and age), combine them all and then let others confirm or cosign that you are that person. Then take that information, along with other secret information that only you know (or only you are) and encode it into a string of text, a hash, and store that hash onto a Block Chain and you now have irrevocable, permanent proof that this person is that "hash." If it needs to be updated in the future with new details, additional countersigned strings are attached to the original hash, so that no matter what changes are made, others can always trace it back to a single person. With that identity, you can sign code, send email, complete contractual obligations, send money (ala Bitcoin), vote, etc.

There are a variety of startups and open source initiatives already involved in trying to understand this incredibly exciting concept. For that, my dear reader, we shall wait to discuss next time.