On Sovereignty

Parliament and Big Ben

There's a lot of confusion about self-sovereign identity.

Many people hear sovereign and think "sovereign means the individual has complete control." Not really. As Scott David pointed out, "declaring yourself king of a deserted island isn't very useful."

Sovereignty is about relationships and boundaries. When we say a nation is sovereign, we mean that it can act as a peer to other sovereign states, not that it can do whatever it wants. Sovereignty defines a boundary, within which the sovereign has complete control and outside of which the sovereign relates to others within established rules and norms.

Self-sovereign identity (SSI) describes the same situation. A self-sovereign identity system (SIS) defines the things over which an entity (person or organization) has complete control along with the rules of engagement for its relations with other entities in the SIS system.

For example, an SIS might give entities complete control over what claims they share in response to queries about them. But sovereignty doesn't mean that a party relying on a claim has to accept it. The relying party's sovereignty allows it to determine what claims satisfy its demands and which don't.

But sovereignty means that all powers are reciprocal. Continuing the example, anyone can reject the claims others choose to present to them. The key to sovereignty is that all entities are peers. I have the same rights you do. The beauty of sovereignty isn't complete and total control, but rather balance of power that leads to negotiations about the nature of the relationships between various entities in the system.

When People Can Share Verifiable Attributes, Everything Changes

In the physical world, people carry credentials to prove to others that they have certain attributes or hold certain privileges. Online, this is not possible.

For example, a driver's license contains attributes like name, address, and date of birth that have been validated by the Driver's License Division. The driver’s license is widely viewed as trustworthy. Consequently, people use driver's licenses for purposes other than driving. For example, a school or pharmacy can easily verify that a license belongs to the person presenting it, and confirm the validity of the license without ever contacting the Driver's License Division directly.

In other words, in the physical world, people hold and are the conveyors of their own trustworthy attributes (called “claims” by identity experts). These attributes can be used when needed and without prior agreement. Online, such interactions are only possible through pre-arranged integrations between the APIs of specific computer systems.

Identity systems in use today include federation for business-to-business credential sharing, and social login for consumer authentication1. Neither of these offers a foundation upon which third-party claim issuers can easily build services that allow for the kind of ad hoc attribute sharing that happens in the physical world. Consequently, entities who want to rely on attributes from many parties have to perform integrations with all of them. This is slow, complex, and costly, so it typically happens only for high-value applications.

Decentralized identity systems, like Sovrin, have built-in support for third-party claims that function in the same way physical credentials work: they’re presented directly by the identity owner. The identity owner can use a claim from one party to disclose attributes to another party without those parties even having a relationship, much less a technical integration2. Claims can be used in ad hoc situations, just as they can in the physical world, allowing individuals to function as integration points. When you can instantly trust what someone says about themselves, workflows and integrations are dramatically simplified.

There are other benefits to owner-provided attribute sharing. First, when owners share attributes, the receiver automatically gains consent to use the attributes for the requested purpose. This significantly reduces liability. Second, when the owner is part of the process, they can check the accuracy of the attributes as they’re being shared, resulting in better data.

Owner-provided attributes are a powerful driver that will push decentralized identity systems well beyond the current uses of federation and social login. Businesses can reduce or even eliminate API integrations and manual verification processes, and instead trust what's presented to them by customers, because the claims can be verified. Customers become the source of what's true about them. Businesses will find great value in this, driving adoption by individuals as customers are brought into decentralized identity systems through day-to-day business activities.

  1. See Self-Sovereign Identity and the Legitimacy of Permissioned Ledgers for more on the difference between self-sovereign identity systems and social login.
  2. See How Sovrin Works for details on how claims can be received, stored, and shared as verifiable disclosures.

TL;DR: How Sovrin Works

If you're too busy to read How Sovrin Works, here's a short animation that summarizes the post using my graphics. Thanks to Andy Tobin for putting it together.

Animation of How Sovrin Works

How Sovrin Works

Sovereign; Image by Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC 2.0

Sovrin is an open-source identity network built on distributed ledger technology. Sovrin is public and permissioned. Public means everyone can use it. Permissioned means that the network nodes that ensure consensus of transactions on the ledger are governed, in this case by the non-profit Sovrin Foundation.

In this discussion we're going to look at the interactions of a Sovrin user named Jane with her bank, her local government, a potential employer, her school and a retailer.

The following figure shows Jane's view of her identity on Sovrin. Right now there's nothing there, but we're going to add things as we discuss Sovrin's capabilities in the following sections. Jane's identity doesn't really exist as depicted. The view is a virtual representation. Jane's Sovrin identity is the collection of all of her Sovrin identifiers, claims, disclosures, and proofs. The things in the box labeled "Jane's identity" are stored in various places. Most, but not all will be on the Sovrin ledger itself, some might be stored off the ledger in other repositories like the private ledger we'll discuss later.

Jane's empty ledger
Jane and an empty ledger

The diagram also shows the Sovrin Ledger. The ledger is shown to emphasize that everything we talk about is using the ledger. There are far too many lines for the diagram to show all the various interactions with the ledger itself, so I've chosen to merely represent it and use it as a place to show the diagram's legend.

The Sovrin Identity Network (SIDN) consists of multiple, distributed nodes located around the world. Each has a copy of the ledger. Nodes are hosted and administered by stewards. Each node has a copy of the ledger. Stewards are responsible for validating identity transactions to assure consistency about what is written on the ledger and in what order. They do this using a combination of cryptography and an advanced Byzantine fault tolerance algorithm. See the Sovrin whitepapers The Inevitable Rise of Self-Sovereign Identity (PDF) and The Technical Foundation of Sovrin (PDF) for more details.

Keys, Identifiers, and Relationships

Sovrin tracks keys and identifiers. One of the major concerns with identity is correlation. If Jane were to use one identifier in multiple places, those places might collude to correlate that identifier and amass significant data about her without her permission. Sovrin avoids this by allowing Jane to use a different identifier with everyone she relates to.

By default, Sovrin identifiers are cryptonyms, an encoded Ed25519 digital signature verification key. Sovrin also supports DID’s (Distributed Identifiers), which are identifiers with no cryptographic properties. These identifiers also have an associated Ed25519 verification key. In the diagram the signing key is represented by a small letter and the verification key is represented by a big letter. These two keys represent a private-public key pair. Jane never shares her signing key, only the verification key.

Jane's relationships
Jane's relationships

Jane has a relationship with her bank. She shares a verification key, A, with the bank that created specifically for this relationship. This key represents Jane's identity to the bank and can be used to verify any interactions that they have. The bank also has its own key, K. This is a well-known key that represents the bank to the world. Jane would also have a copy of that so that she can validate communications she has with her bank. The verification keys of both Jane and the bank are found on Sovrin, so they can both know they are using the latest verification keys of the other party.

As we add new relationships to this diagram, you'll see that Jane uses a unique key pair for each of her relationships1.


In addition to identifiers, Jane has claims on Sovrin. Claims are a fundamental component of Sovrin. They are assertions or attestations made by a party about itself or another. Claims are digitally signed so that anyone receiving the claim can know who issued it.

There are several types of claims. In the following diagram, claim 1 and 4 are self-asserted. Jane might, for example, create a claim that asserts her gender or that her name is Jane.

The other claims are verifiable claims made by others about Jane. Claim 2 was asserted (and signed) by the local government. This claim might be a driver's license. Jane could use this verifiable claim to prove to someone else that she's authorized to drive.

Jane has claims
Claims about Jane

A claim in Sovrin is specific to an identity owner, its subject. Claims are linked to the identity owner and the party issuing the claim. For example, claim 2, Jane's driver's license, can be validated as being about Jane and as having been issued by her local government.

Claims are defined so that they are understandable by parties that rely on them. Sovrin makes provision for claim types to be defined with a schema or ontology. Claim definitions are recorded on the Sovrin ledger. The local government would create a claim definition that describes a driver's license claim. Jane's claim includes a reference to the definition so that anyone to whom Jane presents her driver's license can look up its definition and make sense of it.

Claims also have keys that are specific to the claim so that relying parties can validate that the claim is legitimate. Claim keys are linked to the issuer. A claim key can be changed, but old keys are saved, so that a relying party can verify a claim based on the keys that were used to issue it.

And, of course, claims can expire or be revoked when needed.


Claims can be reused and tailored to the applied purpose at hand using disclosure proofs. Disclosure proofs allow claims to be used without disclosing unnecessary information about the subject.

Jane discloses attributes using her claims
Jane discloses attributes using her claims

In this diagram, Jane is applying for a job. She can combine the verifiable claims from her school and government along with information she's self-asserted into a disclosure. Jane can pick the attributes she wants to share from each of these without disclosing the entire claim. For example, she might choose to include a proof from the government of her address and that she's over 18, a proof that she has a certain degree from her school, and a proof of her gender from herself. Jane uses a master secret, a special key, to create the disclosure using a zero-knowledge proof algorithm. The disclosure proof links the attributes so that the employer knows that they were made about the same person.

The employer can verify each of these attributes were asserted by the party who makes the claim. The employer has a verification key from Jane that allows them to validate claims that Jane makes herself. Jane can disclose additional details as the relationship with the employer progresses. While the algorithms behind this are complex, the user experience is simple and natural.

An important point about disclosure proofs is that they are non-correlatable. Suppose someone at the employer had a friend who worked in the local government. These two people couldn't collude to use the proof Jane sent to the employer to discover additional information about Jane that the government holds. Neither the proof nor the identifier the employer holds for Jane correlate to any identifier that the government holds and thus can't be used as a key to look Jane up in the government's systems.

Claims Can Be Made About Anybody

Jane has a relationship with a retailer (we can tell since they have her verification key). Suppose that Jane wants some evidence that the retailer is in good standing with the local chamber of commerce. In the same way that Jane created a disclosure for a potential employer from claims, the retailer can use a verifiable claim from the chamber of commerce to create a disclosure proof and send it to Jane. She now has proof of what the chamber of commerce said about the retailer.

Jane receives a proof from a retailer
Jane receives a proof from a retailer

Consent Receipts

As part of buying from the retailer, Jane has shared personal information. The retailer can provide an attestation that they will treat Jane's personal data in a specific way (e.g permission to use expires after 30 days, attributes used only for completing transactions, and so on). That attestation is called a consent receipt. Jane uses Sovrin to keep track of the consent receipts she's received. Consent receipts are just one type of agreement that Jane can manage with Sovrin.

Jane receives a consent receipt
Jane receives a consent receipt

Public and Private Attributes

Claims can be public or private. For example, the school might have a public attribute showing its address. That isn't sensitive information, so it can be stored publicly on the Sovrin ledger. Anyone can read it and validate that it really is the self-asserted address of the school. Furthermore, others can attest to the validity of the claim, leading, over time, to increased trust that the address is legitimate. This kind of social proof is critical to establishing reputation and building trust.

Encrypted attributes are not normally stored on the Sovrin ledger. The following diagram shows that Jane has a private ledger. Things like proofs from others and encrypted attributes can be stored there.

Jane's private ledger
Jane's private ledger

One important purpose of the private ledger is to track the time and order that things are written. Hashes of the private ledger can be written to Sovrin's public ledger periodically to provide evidence of Jane's holdings. These are called anchors. Jane can thus generate audit proofs that any particular interaction happened at a particular time without disclosing the details of the interaction.

Jane may have a private ledger on her mobile phone, and in her browser. An agency could help her manage them and facilitate synchronization between her devices. Agencies are service providers that help Jane manage her identity. You can think of them as analogous to Internet Service Providers. They are substitutable for one another and Jane can choose a new agency without losing any of her identifiers, attributes, proofs, or claims. Because all of the information stored in Jane's private ledger is encrypted, there's a low security risk in using an agency as they never see Jane's transactions except in an encrypted state. Agencies are under legal contract to Sovrin Foundation to behave in specific ways to ensure Jane's security and privacy.

Advantages of Sovrin

We've seen in the preceding examples a number of advantages that Sovrin holds over other identity systems.

  • Public—everyone can use Sovrin. Both individuals and organizations will be relying parties and claim issuers.
  • Permissioned—the Sovrin Foundation establishes rules for network nodes like stewards and agencies to hold them legally accountable for their actions.
  • Reputation enhancing—Sovrin allows for the social proof of information people claim to be true, building reputation and thus enhancing trust.
  • Trustworthy—identifiers and claims can be trusted because they are based on strong cryptography and governed by the Sovrin Foundation.
  • Privacy enhancing—claims can be reused without risking correlation between identities. Sovrin reduces the hesitancy people might feel by enhancing privacy and thus reducing risk.
  • Friction reducingservices can be integrated on the ledger, enhancing interactions between businesses

If you're interested in a deeper understanding of Sovrin and how it works, you should start by reading the Sovrin whitepaper The Inevitable Rise of Self-Sovereign Identity (PDF). There are also many other documents, including The Technical Foundation of Sovrin (PDF) and a Getting Started tutorial (PDF) on the Sovrin website.

The details from this post are taken from a screencast that Jason Law created.

  1. There's no reason these relationship have to be with institutions. They could also be with other people, or even her things.

Announcing the Sovrin Foundation

sovrin logo on black background

In London today, we're announcing the formation of the Sovrin Foundation. Sovrin Foundation is a private-sector, international non-profit that was established to govern the Sovrin Identity Network (SIDN). SIDN is a public, permissioned distributed ledger purpose built for identities.

The Internet was created without any way for people and organizations to be identified. On the Internet, only machines get identities in the form of IP numbers. This is understandable given what the creators of the Internet were trying to achieve. But the lack of a decentralized, heterarchical, and interoperable identity system has created an environment where the services most people use online are a lot more centralized than the Internet they're built upon.

Sovrin Foundation aims to rectify that. Using the virtues of Internet as a model, The Sovrin identity protocol uses a distributed ledger to replace today's centralized identity intermediaries. I believe an Internet-like identity system will create new opportunities for everyone by streamlining interactions and enabling stronger levels of trust.

As I wrote earlier, self-sovereign identity creates a vast new identity ecosystem because it frees millions of organizations to write claims on the ledger. Sovrin is designed to allow this ecosystem of claims providers to thrive.

A permissioned ledger needs a governance process to determine the business processes and overarching legal framework that validators on the network must follow to ensure that2 SIDN can be trusted. Sovrin Foundation provides the lightweight governance that is needed to do that. Sovrin Foundation governs the network and the open-source code that makes it work, but we don't own or control people's identities, they are sovereign.

The Foundation has four primary duties:

  1. Develop and maintain the Sovrin Trust Framework, governing the selection and monitoring of Sovrin stewards and operation of the Sovrin Ledger.
  2. Coordinate and monitor steward activity to ensure the ledger is stable, correct, and trustworthy.
  3. Manage the Sovrin Project—the open source code that operates, validates, and provides access to the ledger.
  4. Promote universal acceptance of the Sovrin ledger for self-sovereign identity.

I've agreed to serve as the inaugural chair of the foundation. I co-founded the Internet Identity Workshop with Kaliya Hamlin and Doc Searls a dozen years ago with the goal of promoting what we then called "user-centric identity." My motivations in doing that were the same as they are here: find a way to unlock the vast potential of people who own and control their online identity.

We have a tremendous, global Board of Trustees who have agreed to serve and help organize the foundation. Each person on the board brings unique talents and perspective. I'm excited to work with them in organizing Sovrin Foundation and bringing this to fruition.

Evernym developed the code that makes Sovrin work and has generously gifted that code to Sovrin Foundation. Making it open source wasn't enough. Sovrin Foundation can't govern SIDN without also owning the code that makes it work. Timothy Ruff and Jason Law, Evernym's founders, saw early on that the best way to make Sovrin successful was to give it away. Sovrin Foundation is grateful for their support and this demonstration of trust.

You can get more information from the following links:

If you'd like to know more, feel free to contact us. We invite your participation.

Self-Sovereign Identity and the Legitimacy of Permissioned Ledgers

Stone record at Behistun

My last blog post was about creating an Internet for identity, a decentralized system that allows people and organizations to create identities independent of intervening administrative authorities. The post describes this system as self-sovereign and I call the system a self-sovereign identity system or SIS.

I believe the right way to construct SIS is using a public, permissioned distributed ledger. Permissioned ledgers have important properties that make them specifically useful for identity systems.

But permissioning implies governance. Someone has to determine who has permission to participate in approving transactions. If there are people making these kinds of decisions, how can a governed, permissioned ledger justify a claim that it supports self-sovereign identity?

John Locke and Sovereignty

John Locke was an English philosopher who had a big impact on the thinking of America’s founding fathers. Locke was concerned with power, who had it, how it was used, and how society is structured. More importantly, Locke’s theory of mind forms the foundation for our modern ideas about identity and independence.

Locke argued that “sovereign and independent” was man’s natural state and that we gave up freedom, our sovereignty, in exchange for something else, protection, sociality, commerce, among others. This grand bargain forms the basis for any society. As a community, the Internet proposes a similar bargain.

The goal of being self-sovereign isn't to be completely independent. With regard to the Internet: only machines without a network connection are completely independent. In the case of identity: only people without any relationships are completely independent. Seen from Locke's viewpoint, sovereignty is a resource each person combines with that of others to create society. Voluntarily giving up some of our rights to a state confers legitimacy on that state and its constitution.

Constitutional Orders and Legitimacy

Wikipedia defines legitimacy as

the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a regime.

While this is most often applied to governments, I think we can rightly pose legitimacy questions for technical systems, especially those that have large impacts on people and society.

With respect to legitimacy, Philip Bobbit says:1

The defining characteristic ... of a constitutional order is its basis for legitimacy. The constitutional order of the industrial nation state, within which we currently live, promised: give us power and we will improve the material well-being of the nation.

In other words, legitimacy comes from the constitutional order: the structure of the governance. Citizens grant legitimacy to constitutional orders that meet their expectations by surrendering part of their sovereignty to them.

Regarding constitutional orders, Bobbitt says the following:2

The constitutional order of a state and its strategic posture toward other states together form the inner and outer membrane of a state. That membrane is secured by violence; without that security, a state ceases to exist. What is distinctive about the State is the requirement that the violence it deploys on its behalf must be legitimate; that is, it must be accepted within as a matter of law, and accepted without as an appropriate act of state sovereignty. Legitimacy must cloak the violence of the State, or the State ceases to be. Legitimacy, however, is a matter of history and thus is subject to change as new events emerge from the future and new understandings reinterpret the past.

Without legitimacy, the state cannot take action because neither it's citizens nor those on the outside who interact with it will see that action as authorized and thus it won't be accepted. Again, I believe these same principles can be applied to technical systems with broad societal impact. Without the support of it's users and the organizations rely on it, technical systems fail to be accepted.

My goal in this article is to apply these ideas about sovereignty, legitimacy, and constitutional orders to identity systems. Identity systems that seek to have large adoption and a broad spectrum of applications must have the support of a large class of users (analogous to citizens) and many relying parties (analogous to other states). They make promises that users and relying parties use to judge their legitimacy. Without legitimacy, they cannot succeed in their goals.

Social login, using your social media account to log into other sites, has become a popular means of reducing the identity management burden for users and relying parties alike. As I said earlier, my last post analyzed an emerging class of identity systems based on distributed ledger technology I called sovereign-identity systems (SIS). My thesis is that we are in the early stages of a change in the constitutional order for identity systems from social login to sovereign-identity systems. The rest of this article will focus on these two constitutional orders for identity systems, the promises they make, and their claims to legitimacy.

The Legitimacy of Social Login

Social media sites have become the largest providers of online identity through the use of social login. When you use Facebook to log into a third party Web site (known in identity circles as a relying party), you are participating in an identity regime that has a particular constitutional order and granting it legitimacy by your participation. Further, the relying party has also chosen to recognize the legitimacy of social login.

The constitutional order of social login is found in the terms and conditions in the contracts of adhesion that social login identity providers impose on people and relying parties alike. The system is a "take it or leave it" proposition with terms that can be changed at will by the social login identity provider.

A constitutional order makes different promises to those in the system (the users) and those on the outside (the relying parties). Let's examine the promise that social login makes:

  • To people social login says "use the identity we provide to you and we will make logging into sites you visit easy."

  • To relying parties, social login promises "use the identity we provide and trust us to accurately authenticate your users and we will reduce your costs, increase flexibility, and give you more accurate information about your users."

As successful as social login has been, there are a lot of places that social login has failed to penetrate. By and large, financial and health care institutions, for example, have not joined in to use social login. Why is this?

A constitutional theorist would say that they've failed the legitimacy test. Some relying parties and some people (either completely or for some use cases) have failed to yield their sovereignty to them. Legitimacy ultimately rests on trust that the regime can keep its promises. When that trust is missing or lost, the regime suffers a legitimacy crisis.

For people, the lack of trust in social login might be from fear of identity correlation, fear of what data will be shared, or lack of trust in the security of the social login platform.

For relying parties, the lack of trust may result from the perception that the identity provider performs insufficient identity proofing or the fear of outsourcing a critical security function (user authentication) to a third party. An additional concern is allowing a third party of have administrative authority for the relying party's users—not being in control of a critical piece of infrastructure. That is, they don't trust that the rules of the game might change arbitrarily based on the fluctuating business demands of the identity provider.3

These trust failings ultimately stem from the structure of the trust framework, the constitutional order, of social login. Because it's based on terms and conditions imposed by the identity provider whose primary business is something else, people and relying parties alike have less confidence in the future state of the identity system. So, it's good enough for some purposes, but not all.

The Legitimacy of Distributed Ledger Identity Systems

A distributed ledger identity system, what we've been calling SIS, has a different constitutional order. As we discussed in An Internet for Identity, nobody owns SIS, everybody can use it, and anyone can improve it. There are no identity providers. Anyone can create multiple identities on SIS to suit their needs. SIS is a public infrastructure for identity.

There's another important structural difference: SIS allows third party claim issuers to read and write claims about identifiers on the ledger. For example, the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) might write a claim about your authority to drive to the ledger. This claim would be sharable, by you, with others who are willing to trust the DMV. Anyone you share this claim with can verify that it came from the DMV and that it hasn't been tampered with.

Claims issuers are distinguished from identity owners and relying parties.4 Their relationship with identity owners is that they issue claims about them. Relying parties rely on the claims that claims providers issues when they are shared by the identity owner. Allowing third party claim issuers to participate in the identity ecosystem opens up new and powerful opportunities for participants in an SIS ecosystem.

Because claim issuers and relying parties are distinguished, we will refer to them collectively as "other parties."

SIS Identity Relationships
SIS Identity Relationships

SIS makes the following promises:

  • To people: "Create as many identities as you like and use them how you see fit. You can keep them forever. We will ensure that you can use them privately and securely, sharing claims on those identities with other parties as you see fit."

  • To claim issuers: "Write claims about the identities with whom you have a relationship. We will ensure that your claims are secure and private (where appropriate)."

  • To relying parties: "Use claims made by yourself and others (when they are shared with you). We will ensure that these claims are secure and that you can trust them."

There are two ways we can presently realize SIS: with a permissionless ledger or a permissioned ledger. I'm going to assume that both of these are public, meaning anyone can use them. There are private, permissioned ledgers that are used within specific administrative domains. But SIS has to be public—everybody can use it—to meet the criteria of being like the Internet.

One factor in the constitutional order of permissionless and permissioned ledgers is who can validate (and thus, ultimately, write) to the ledger. While it's public and anyone can use it, the transactions have to be validated to prevent fraud.

In a permissionless system, anyone can be a validator. This leads to permissionless ledgers, like the Bitcoin blockchain, having to use some mechanism to ensure that validator voting is fair. Specifically, a permissionless ledger has to protect against Sybil attacks. If pseudonyms are cheap, cheaters can create as many a they like and use them in the validation process to vote for fraudulent transactions. Permissionless ledgers, therefore, use techniques like proof of work or proof of stake to increase the cost of participation and mitigate attacks.

Permissioned systems, on the other hand, control who can be a validator. Sybil attacks are not possible when the validators are known beforehand. But this creates a different problem: someone has to vet the validators and ensure that they are known and play by the rules. When a validator breaks the rules, there has to be a judicial process to review the issue and possibly ban the offending node from participating in future transaction validations. Consequently, we need a governance process to identify validators, set rules for their behavior, bind them to contracts, and adjudicate their behavior.

These different structures will affect how well these two different systems can meet the promises upon which an SIS stakes its legitimacy. While I don't believe it's necessarily a competition and that both kinds of ledgers will co-exist to meet different needs, I believe that permissioned ledgers have an edge in establishing trust with claim issuers and relying parties alike. A governance process allows a clear case to be made about trust and process.

In particular, we've seen instances in permissionless ledgers that led to blocks being orphaned or a smart contract being hacked. In both cases, code maintainers had to choose how to resolve the issue in the ledger. Their choice was a legitimacy problem because they had to convince the validators to move with them and support it. A permissioned system doesn't necessarily prevent these problems, but it can provide a clear, unambiguous judicial process for solving the problem. This provides clarity to everyone about what happens when something goes wrong. This is a clear advantage.

How will permissioned systems fare with people? That depends on the details of their constitutions. To the extent that governance is limited to controlling validators, and not limiting how identities are created and used in the system, people will see clear advantages in permissioned ledgers because they will attract claim issuers and relying parties that people want to interact with. Heavy-handed governance that limits individual control of identity, on the other hand, will turn people off and push them to permissionless systems where anything goes. This isn't binary, there's a spectrum of choices between these two extremes.

Surviving the Transition

In Bobbitt's theory of constitutional orders, transitions from one constitutional order to a new one always requires war. After all, since state constitutions represent a structure seeking legitimacy for its monopoly on violence, violence is necessarily the founding tenet of the state.

Technological systems aren't using their constitution in the same way. I believe one critical difference is that holding multiple citizenships in different online systems is entirely practical. Consequently, I believe people will continue to use social login alongside newer distributed-ledger identity systems for some time to come.

Claim issuers and relying parties might be another story. There very well could be a competition for other parties between different identity regimes and that is where I believe we'll see the benefits of these different constitutional orders being carefully weighed and hotly debated.

At least for some time, social login is going to win the "we have the most users" contest. But as we saw with Internet adoption, that didn't hold true very long for CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy (among others). AOL was the only online service company to survive the transition. If SIS can fulfill its promise, the scales could tip swiftly as more and more claim issuers and relying parties see the benefit of SIS and adopt it, bringing their users with them.

Different Sovereign Identity Systems will have different constitutions. Not just whether they are permissionless or permissioned, but also within these broad classes. For example, there can be significant differences in the governance of permissioned ledgers. The most successful ones will be more like republics or democratic governments: they exert authority, but only that which is granted to them by the users, for the sake of the users.

  1. Bobbitt, Philip. The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (Kindle Locations 462-464).

  2. Bobbitt, Philip. The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History

  3. Note that identity providers in the social login regime are not primarily in the business of providing identity. Their business is something else (mostly selling ads) and providing identity for social login is, from their perspective, part of serving that end.

  4. Note that in practical usage, any given entity might play any of these three roles at different times.

An Internet for Identity


In World of Ends, Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger enumerate the Internet's three virtues:

  1. No one owns it.
  2. Everyone can use it.
  3. Anyone can improve it.

If we wanted to build an identity system that was like the Internet, we'd want it to have those same virtues. To make the discussion below easier, let's call that system SIS (for sovereign identity system).

No One Owns It

Every online identity you have was given to you by someone else.

This simple fact makes every online identity completely different from identity in the physical world where you exist first, independently, as a sovereign human being.

As a result, online relationships are skewed. There's an imbalance of power between people and organizations online. Here's why. Online identity looks like this:

Fig 1: Current online identity model

To do business with Amazon, you have to create an account. So do I. We both get a relationship with Amazon based on an identity that we create within Amazon's namespace. That identity is subject to the (mostly unread) Terms and Conditions that Amazon places on the use of its service. Your use of the account is subject to whatever restrictions Amazon chooses to place on it. These can be changed retroactively. Furthermore, Amazon can take the account away at any time and you have very little recourse. Clearly Amazon owns the account and is letting you use it so long as such use suits their goals.

Of course, Amazon isn't unique here. This is how identity works online. Everyone knows that. For identity to be different, we'd need a way for people to create online identities that they control.

Such an identity system could turn this diagram inside-out, resulting in a picture where you are at the center:

Fig 2: A sovereign identity model

In SIS, individuals, businesses, and other organizations establish identities that exist independently of the other identities in the system. Those identities are peers. Of course, being at the center is perception. The reality looks more like the Internet:

Fig 3: Peer to peer relationships in a sovereign model

Everyone Can Use It

Every online identity you have is subject to someone else granting you permission.

Anyone can use the Internet. No one has to give you permission. And no one can cut you off. You do need to get an IP address, but that's not a significant burden—they're widely available from multiple sources (and IPv6 was created to reduce that even further). Once you and I have an address, we can exchange IP packets to our heart's content. If your ISP cuts you off, you get another because they're substitutable, give me your new address, and we're back to exchanging packets.

An Internet-like identity system like SIS would be public. Anyone should be able to use it without getting permission from a system administrator or having to agree to terms and conditions that are changed arbitrarily or controlled and adjudicated by a closed process without recourse. An Internet-like identity system should be built so that everyone can participate on equal footing.

Anyone Can Improve It

You can only improve identity systems in ways their owners allow.

The Internet gets improved by lots of people everyday—most of whom have no formal relationship with the Internet's governance bodies. This happens in a couple of ways:

First, there is an open process for improving the system. On the Internet that happens through open protocols and open source code. This isn't a free-for-all. There are governance processes that control how these improvements are vetted and incorporated.

Second, anyone can design and build a new service on top of these protocols. DNS, email, and other services are all built on top of the Internet. So are the World Wide Web and things like Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

An Internet-like identity system should allow these same kinds of improvements. While governance is necessary, that doesn't diminish the virtues of the open platform. One of the paradoxes of decentralized platforms is that they require more formal governance than centralized ones.

Because its public, anyone can use SIS for anything it's protocols allow. That freedom gives rise to innovation. I fully expect that SIS would be used for purposes and in ways that it's designers could never imagine—just like the Internet.


As I wrote in The CompuServe of Things, the Internet works because it's (1) decentralized, (2) heterarchical, and (3) interoperable. These properties and others follow from the virtues we've discussed above.

Decentralized—decentralization follows directly from the fact that no one owns it. This is the primary criterion for judging the degree of decentralization in a system. And as I mention above, not only can a system be decentralized and governed, some level of governance is necessary for decentralized systems to function well.

Heterarchical—a heterarchy is a "system of organization where the elements of the organization are unranked (non-hierarchical) or where they possess the potential to be ranked a number of different ways." The diagram in Figure 3 (above) shows identities in relationships with each other as peers. This is a heterarchy; there is no inherent ranking of nodes in the architecture of the system.

Interoperable—regardless of what providers or systems we use to connect to SIS, we should be able to interact with any other principles who are using it. We don't have to worry that our identity will only work on some specific provider's systems. And given that it's based on open protocols and software, other identity systems should be able to interoperate with it as well.

Substitutable—SIS is a protocol, an agreement if you will, about how systems that use it must behave to achieve interoperability. That means that anyone who understands the protocol can write software that uses SIS. The end result is that while there will likely be software, systems, and companies who provide access to and services on SIS, your identity and your use of it don't depend on any one of them. There are usable substitutes that provide choice and freedom.

Reliable—people, businesses, and others must be able to use it without worrying that it will go down, stop working, go up in price, or get taken over by someone who would do it and those who use it harm. This is larger than mere technical trust that a system will be available. It extends to the business model (or lack thereof) and the governance—the full BLT (business, legal and technical) stack.

Non-proprietary—no one has the power to change SIS by fiat or take away a person's identity. Further, it can't go out of business and stop operation because its maintenance and operation are distributed instead of being centralized in the hands of a single organization. Because SIS is more of an agreement than a technology or system, so long as those using it agree to work together according to its principles, it will continue to work—just like the Internet

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Is SIS an identity provider? No. There are no identity providers in the way we've come to think of them. The whole notion of providing and identity to someone is based in the administrative identity realm.
  2. Why would businesses use SIS? Most businesses see their identity systems as a cost center, not a profit center. And yet they're reluctant to turn over access to their system to some other entity who may turn into a competitor someday. SIS solves this problem by providing an identity system that the business doesn't have to maintain and is non-proprietary. This is a big win for businesses across the Internet because it reduces friction and cost at the same time.
  3. Does this mean that businesses won't have their own accounts? The existence of SIS doesn't mean that businesses don't still have a need to keep track of their customers, record preferences, etc. Take Amazon as an example. While SIS could be used to provide credit card and address information to Amazon, They'd still want to know who their customers are and provide wish lists, shopping carts, and so on. Amazon might choose to store Amazon identity information about a person on SIS.
  4. What would SIS be used for? The short answer is that people and organizations would write claims on SIS about identities in the system. These claims might be public, public and verifiable, encrypted, jointly owned, or self-asserted. Identity owners could make use of these claims in a variety of ways. For example, my bank might write a claim that I control a particular credit card on SIS—encrypted, of course. I could then provide that validated credit card information to others when I needed to make a payment. In some ways it feels like 1Password, Keypass, or iCloud Keychain, but on a much grander scale and far more flexible.
  5. How could SIS be built? A few years ago, SIS was a dream people had, but without a clear technical path to achieving it. The introduction of blockchain technology changed that. Over the last few years, research in distributed ledger technology has exploded and SIS is now not only possible, but versions of it are being conceived and built by several organizations. I prefer a permissioned distributed ledger over permissionless for SIS.

An Internet for Identity

The Internet was created without any way for people, organizations, and other entities to be identified. On the Internet, only machines get identities in the form of IP numbers. This is understandable given what the creators of the Internet were trying to achieve. But the lack of a decentralized, heterarchical, and interoperable identity system has created an environment where the services most people use online are a lot more centralized than the Internet they exist upon.

We're finally at a point where that failing can be rectified. Multiple players are working on sovereign identity systems that use distributed ledgers to create identity systems that are owned by no one, can be used by everyone, and can be improved by anyone. These systems will result in increased flexibility for people, businesses, and others as well as enabling new innovations in online services.


Thanks to Timothy Ruff of Evernym for the big dot/little dot figures.

Decentralization and Distributed Ledgers


Last week, I referenced an article in American Banker on the responsibilities of blockchain developers. I focused mainly on the governance angle, but the article makes several pokes at the "decentralization charade" and that's been bothering me. The basic point being that (a) there's no such thing as a blockchain without governance (whether ad hoc or deliberate) and (b) governance means that the ledger isn't truly decentralized.

In Re-imagining Decentralized and Distributed, I make the distinction between distributed and decentralized by stating that decentralized systems are composed of pieces that are not under the control of any single entity. By that definition, DNS, for example, is a pretty good example of a decentralized service since it's composed of servers run by millions of separate organizations around the world, cooperating to map names to IP numbers. There are others including email, the Web, and the Internet itself.

But DNS is clearly subject to some level of governance. The protocol is determined by a standards body. Most of the DNS servers in the world are running an open-source DNS server called BIND that is managed by the Internet System Consortium. Domain names themselves are governed by rules put in place by ICANN. There are a group of people who control, for better or worse, what DNS is and how it works.

So, is DNS decentralized? I maintain that DNS is decentralized, despite a relatively small set of people who, together, govern it. Here's why:

First, we have to recognize that decentralization is a continuum, not a binary proposition. Could we imagine a system for mapping names into IP numbers that is more decentralized? Probably. Could we imagine one less decentralized? Most certainly. And given how DNS is governed, there are a multitude of entities who have to agree to make significant changes to the overall operation of the DNS system.

Second, and more important, the governance of the DNS system is open. Structurally, it's difficult for those who govern DNS to make any large-scale change without everyone knowing about them and, if they choose, objecting.

Third, the kinds of decisions that can be made by the governance bodies are limited, in practice, but the structure of the system, the standards, and the traditions of practice that have grown up around it. For example, there is a well-defined process for handling domain name disputes. Not everyone will be happy with it, but at least it exists and is understood. Dispute resolution, as one example, is not ad hoc, arbitrary, or secret.

Lastly, the DNS system may be governed by a relatively small set of people and organizations, but it's run by literally millions. People running DNS servers have a choice about what server software they run. If enough of them decided to freeze at a particular place because they objected to changes or to fork the code, they could effectively derail an unpopular decision.

Distributed ledgers will have varying levels of decentralization depending on their purpose and their governance model and how that model is made operational. The standard by which they should be judged is not "does any human ever make a decision affecting the ledger" but rather:

  1. Is the ledger as decentralized as we can make it while achieving the ends for which the ledger was created?
  2. Is the governance process open? Who can participate? How are the governing entities chosen?
  3. How light is the governance? Are the kinds of decisions the governing bodies can make limited by declared process?
  4. Is the operation of the system dependent of the voluntary participation of entities outside the governing bodies?

Distributed ledgers are young and the methods and modes of governance, along with those entities participating in their governance, are in flux. There are many decisions yet to be made. What's more, there's not one distributed ledger, but many. We're still experimenting with what will work and what won't.

While a perfectly decentralized system may be beyond our reach and even undesirable for many reasons, we can certainly do better than the centralized systems that have grown up on the Web to date. Might we come up with even more decentralized systems in the future? Yes. But that shouldn't stop us from creating the most decentralized systems we can now. And for now, we've seen that governance is necessary. Let's keep it light and open and move forward.

Governance for Distributed Ledgers

Fiduciary Trust Building

This article by Angela Walch from American Banker makes the (excessively snarky) case that distributed ledger developers and miners ought to be held accountable as fiduciaries.

Non-permissioned distributed ledgers like Ethereum will continue to serve important needs, but organizations like banks, insurance companies, credit unions, and others who act as fiduciaries and must meet regulatory requirements, will prefer permissioned ledgers that can provide explicit governance. See Properties of Permissioned and Permissionless Blockchains for more on this.

Governance models for permissioned ledgers should strike a careful balance between what’s in the code and what’s decided by humans. Having everything in code isn’t necessarily the answer. But having humans too heavily involved can open the system up to interference and meddling—both internal and external.

Permissioned ledgers also need to be very clear about what the procedures are for adjudicating problems with the ledger. They can’t be seen as ad hoc or off the cuff. We must have clear dispute resolution procedures and know what disputes the governance system will handle and those it won't.

Governance in permissioned distributed ledgers provides a real solution to some of the ad hoc machinations that have occurred recently with non-permissioned blockchains.

Service Integration Via a Distributed Ledger


Consider a distributed ledger that provides people (among other principles) with an identity and a place to read and write, securely and privately, various claims. As a distributed ledger, it's not controlled by any single organization and is radically decentralized and distributed.

In the following diagram, the Department of Motor Vehicles has written a driver's license record on the distributed ledger. Later, John is asked to prove his age at Walmart. John is involved in permissioning both the writing and reading of the record. Further, the record is written so that John doesn't have to disclose the entire driver's license, just the fact that he's over 18.

A Distributed-Ledger Integration

Walmart and the DMV are interacting despite the lack of explicit integration of their systems. They are interacting via the a distributed ledger that provides secure and private claim presentment. Further, John (the person they're talking about) is structurally part of the conversation. I call this sovereign-source integration since it's based on sovereign-source identity.

Even if there were 20 different distributed ledger systems that Walmart had to integrate with, that still less work than integrating with every DMV. And, they can now write receipts when you shop or read transcripts when you apply for a job—all with your permission, of course.

Security and privacy is ensured by the proper application of cryptography, including public-private key pairs, digital signatures, and cryptographic hashes. This isn't easy, but it's doable. There's nothing about the scenario I'm painting that is waiting on some technology revolution. Everything we need is available now.

I wrote a post a few weeks about about how sovereign-source integration helps solve the problems of building a virtual university. In that article, the student profile (including an LRS) is the distributed, personally controlled integration point. The information in the student profile might all be written as claims on a distributed ledger, but they could also be in some off-ledger system that the distributed ledger just points to. Either way, once the student has provide the various institutions participating in the virtual university with their integration point, the various university systems are able to work together through the integration point instead of needing point-to-point integrations.

virtual university
The Virtual University

The world is too big and vast to imagine that we can scale point-to-point integrations to cover every imaginable use case. The opportunities for this architecture in finance, healthcare, egovernment, education, and other areas of human interaction boggle the mind. Sovereign-source integration is a way to cut the Gordian knot.