CategoryBlockchain

Identity Is the Dark Matter & Energy of Our World

Defining identity is a notoriously difficult endeavor. Identity, in the technology industry, is the name of a business vertical that developers and software vendors use to describe a class of products and services they employ for managing users, authentication, and access control. But the average person doesn’t define identity in this way. They’re more likely to describe identity as how a person or thing defines itself and is known to the world around it. I have always thought it ironic that an industry vertical named ‘Identity’ rarely produces solutions that extend beyond a narrow sliver of what identity truly is. In this post, I will present a conceptual model for identity that defines it as an expansive, organic system, and my stretch goal is that it changes how you perceive your interactions in the world (at least a little).

Identity as a Cosmological Analog

According to Dark Matter & Energy theory, the atoms, particles, and energy people commonly believe are the sum total of the universe, is known as Baryonic matter. Interestingly, and in contrast with human perception, the theory postulates that this form of matter only makes up ~5% of total matter and energy in the universe. The vast majority of the universe is said to be composed of another form of matter and energy, Dark Matter and Dark Energy. I find it fascinating there can be so much beyond our perception that goes into producing the relatively tiny sliver of what we recognize as our world.

A visualization of Dark Matter – NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)

I posit to you that your perception of the countless interactions and exchanges you participate in on a daily basis is the Baryonic equivalent of their true scope and depth — just 5% of what’s really happening. The 95% you don’t see — the organic, interconnected web that permeates everything you experience — is identity. In this way, identity can be described as the Dark Matter & Energy of our physical and digital lives.

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Scaling Decentralized Apps & Services via Blockchain-based Identity Indirection

Blockchain Scalability

Developers of apps and services, blockchain-based or not, must always consider efficiency and scalability in determining how to best serve the needs of their users. This is especially true when you add new or emerging technologies to the equation. In the realm of blockchain-based apps and services, scalability considerations are magnified by the distributed nature of the underlying system.

In order to maintain the unique guarantees of a blockchain, transactions must be processed with a mechanism that ensures consensus, then propagated across the network. These constraints introduce three major scalability challenges:

  1. Propagation over a distributed system
  2. Consensus processing of transactions
  3. Data duplication size and cost

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The Nickelback Persistence Conjecture

“The Hammer’s Coming Down”

In my work with open source blockchains, distributed hash tables, and peer-to-peer systems in the area of identity, I have run across people making this statement from time to time, often in an effort to minimize open source, decentralized, distributed systems vs their centralized or proprietary counterparts:

“The data on these decentralized, distributed systems will only be persistently available if people continue to run them.”

These folks often add:

“This is a serious concern because the people running these systems must have an economic incentive to keep them running.”

I’ve never spent more than an eye-roll of my time on people who make these statements because they’re pure fallacy, but a random assault committed on my eardrums (Britney Spears – Oops I Did it Again) in the admission line at Google I/O 2016 inspired me to finally drop the hammer on this FUD. I’m sure you’re wondering how Britney Spears, Nickelback, and fallacious statements about decentralized, distributed systems are all related: slow your roll, I’ll get there.

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The Web Beyond: How blockchain identity will transform our world

Imagine

Jane wakes up to the sound of her alarm clock – it’s 6:13 AM. “Oh great, what am I in for today,” she thinks. Jane’s alarm clock is normally set for 6:30 AM, but her identity agent detected a traffic accident that is projected to add 17 minutes to her commute. Jane’s identity agent, acting on her behalf, changed her alarm while she was sleeping. All three – Jane’s identity, the identity of her alarm clock, and the identity of her agent – are connected via a self-sovereign, decentralized, blockchain-anchored identity system.

Jane gets ready and grabs a yogurt from the fridge as she heads out the door. The yogurt was delivered yesterday, after her fridge detected she was out. Her fridge’s identity has been granted limited access to initiate purchases for her. In this case, Jane has opted to be notified for confirmation of any purchases her fridge initiates; yesterday Jane swiped “Confirm” when the identity management app on her phone asked if the fridge could execute a purchase of some groceries. The fridge executed a payment over the blockchain using Jane’s identity-linked blockchain wallet and the wallet linked to the grocery store’s identity. That’s right, the grocery store has a blockchain-anchored identity as well. Starting to get the picture?

Jane needs to get to a downtown office building where she is scheduled to meet a contact on the 12th floor. Jane doesn’t have a car, so she asks her identity agent to fetch her one by leveraging the many identity crawlers dedicated to indexing sharing economy identity data. These crawlers are always hard at work, real-time indexing the (user allowed) blockchain identity data changes of every person, place, device, and intangible entity on Earth. In this case, there are hundreds of drivers in Jane’s general vicinity who have granted popular ride sharing identity agents access to read and update their identity’s ride sharing fields. Jane uses her preferred crawler’s app to send signed, encrypted requests directly to providers of sharing economy services. The crawler identifies a driver whose identity shows a ride sharing status of “Available,” with a geolocation value that indicates he is close to Jane. Jane taps “Request a Ride” on the app and it immediately sends a message to the communication endpoint listed on the driver’s blockchain identity. The driver’s blockchain sharing economy app alerts him that a new ride request was received and asks whether he wants to accept. The driver accepts and is sent Jane’s current geolocation.

Upon arriving at her destination, Jane authorizes a payment of her driver’s identity-linked blockchain wallet. She enters the office building and heads directly for the elevators, bypassing a lengthy check-in procedure in the ground floor lobby. Jane taps her phone against an NFC pad, which instantly identifies her via a challenge/response verification of her identity assertion. The elevator system’s blockchain-anchored identity has been given access to the appointment schedules of the various software systems used by the companies that reside in the building. It uses Jane’s identity datastore to locate the appointment entry, which was created by her contact. Within this entry is a signed directive to allow Jane’s identity to access the elevator and take it to the 12th floor. Jane enters the elevator and the button for the 12th floor is already lit up. Just for fun, Jane tries hitting other buttons. But alas, she was not granted access to other floors, so the buttons don’t light up and she isn’t able to access them.

Jane walks up to the front desk and alerts the attendant that she has arrived for her meeting. The attendant directs her to verify her identity once more, via the guest terminal. Jane is greeted by her contact and smiles at the thought of how efficient and interoperable the world has become, thanks to the universal blockchain-based identity system.

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