Identity for a Digital Age

Despite the world being in the throes of a pandemic, human ingenuity and resolve continues to shine. Our cities might be locked down, yet we press on.

Nature has made a comeback as humans have retreated into their homes. New Delhi is no longer plagued by smog and Twitter has been alive with wild animal sightings in uncharacteristic places. Deer in parking garages, wolves in neighborhoods, and even (apparently false) reports of porpoises enjoying newly clean Venice waterways.

The idea of a green future inspired the cover art for this article – New York City being overgrown with lush greenery. Hopefully our readership enjoys the fine HelloIOTA artwork as much as we do.

Fitting with the idea of a changing world, a greener future, and never-ending human resolve, let’s talk about the efforts across the tech industry to solve the issue of COVID immunity verification.

The Global Legal Hackathon paired the IOTA Foundation with one of the largest law firms, Dentons, for about a month ending this week. The product of such a valuable collaboration was as timely as it was brilliant – an app that uses digital identity/decentralized identity (“DID”) to track and verify COVID19 health status of users. It’s called Selv. Before learning about Selv, we need to understand the DID space and how it fits with COVID19.

The World Wide Web Consortium, also known as W3C, was founded in 1994 by the Tim Berners-Lee. Needless to say, W3C is the standard when it comes to all things internet. They have an entire website dedicated to decentralized identifiers. Go check it out if you want to jump down the rabbit hole. Sections of the site cover terminology, architecture, properties, representations, and many other technical topics. Instead of getting bogged down in the details, the key takeaway for us is that it seems like a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time thinking about DIDs.

Although it’s true that progress requires this sort of thinking, spec-ing, and interoperability foresight, there comes a time when code just needs to be written. DID has been talked about for years. Now is the time for action.

To give an idea of what the surrounding market looks like, let’s briefly touch on three COVID credentials projects and/or papers:

  1. COVID immunity certificates by Harvard’s Safra Center: It’s an ethics center, so there’s no technical implementation here. Dakota Gruener put a considerable effort into compiling the specifications for a potential COVID certificate solution. Gruener makes the case that society will more safely resume normal life if newly immune individuals can be trustless-ly verified. Digital “immunity certificates” are the solution, with preference given to systems that allow users to be in control of their own data, and emphasizing privacy as being paramount.
  2. COVID digital certificates by Open University: Unlike the Harvard thought-piece, Open University undertook making a functional solution. It’s a prototype mobile application which “enables verification of tamper-proof test results and vaccination certificates.” It’s aimed at allowing front-line healthcare workers to verify their immunity status. It uses “blockchain” and includes W3C / tamper-proof / privacy rhetoric, although it’s unclear which blockchain is being used.
  3. COVID Credentials Initiative (CCI) by 60+ global institutions: This isn’t a Harvard white paper or an Open University prototype application … it’s a working group meant to foster collaboration between institutions who desire to do these things. Founding companies like Microsoft get the headlines, but for our purposes let’s zoom in on one particular participant institution called ID2020. Lest we forget, ID2020 was founded by John Edge. John Edge was/is part of the IOTA Foundation.

In summary, the COVID credentialing space is littered with an array of projects of varying real world applicability. This brings us to Selv, IOTA’s solution to the COVID credentialing problem.

Selv is a bit of a mashup between digital identity and healthcare credentialing. Jelle Millenaar and Mathew Yarger wrote a brilliant white paper titled The Case for a Unified Identity that you should read if you’re looking for intricate details. If you had to boil the whole thing down into one phrase, you might say that DID is a “BYOI” (bring your own identity).

There’s never been a singular DID use case that could be rallied around. Ideas like digital voting, healthcare data, and digital selective id/passports have been floated in the past, but none have seemed to achieve the necessary critical mass to gain traction. Revealing only your age instead of your whole ID when entering an age restricted place might sound like an interesting side-project, but it has been one of too many. COVID as a unifying force might prove to finally be DID’s killer app. The IOTA Foundation recognized this and took the opportunity.

Selv is IOTA’s solution to DID + COVID immunity validation. It’s got the backing of a pristine institution like Dentons, which is impressive in itself, and of course it’s GDPR and W3C compliant. Where it stands apart from the other COVID projects is that it’s not only a working prototype, but it leverages the fee-less scalable Tangle for posterity and privacy.

Let’s walk through the demo app together.

If you’re on iOS, you’ll first need to install a beta-testing app called “Testflight.” Once you’ve done that, scan the QR code on the desktop demo app webpage that we linked above. Now you’ve got the Selv app installed on your phone. You’ll scroll through the 3 intro slides on the app and arrive at a “create identity” prompt. When that’s created, the phone app wants us to scan the code from our desktop browser into the app – check.

We’re then prompted to share this credential with the National Health Authority upon scanning the on-screen QR code. I choose “Share credential” of my “Home Office” identity. My “Home Office” identity consists of my name, date of birth, birth location, address, ID number, passport number, and contact information!

When the desktop website confirms the shared credential, I can see three panel test results that I want to add as a credential to my account. When I click on “Add credential”, a prompt pops up in my phone app asking if I want to “Accept certificate.” When I accept it, a second credential has appeared on my app’s home screen: I now see my “Home Office” credential along with my “Public Health Authority” credential.

Back on my desktop, I navigate to share my health status with my employer. I scan the QR code and share my credentials at the click of a button from my phone.

Finally, I must share only my health credential with a foreign agency for travel purposes. Again, I scan a QR code and then accept the certificate request by the Foreign Border Agency from my phone. I now see a third credential added to my home screen – my travel visa to this specific foreign border agency.

We also covered the prototype in this week’s Roundup, so check it out if you haven’t already. The video below is timestamped to put you directly on top of the Selv discussion.

First impression: The app itself if sleek and beautiful. I have to admit that the concept of DID is nebulous when I’m constantly inundated with buzzwords and tech jargon. Having the first hand experience of actually using an app, making a mock account, QR scanning new credentials into my account, sharing restricted personal data with external entities, and having those external entities issue new credentials based on that shared data is unbelievably eye opening in a way only experience can be. It makes the idea of digital identity tangible. You can read as many articles, white papers, and executive summaries as you like, but you’ll never get the understanding that you will from interacting with an application like this.

It’s easy to imagine a future in which not just name and date-of-birth, but all sorts of personal data is stored in a digital wallet like this.

Selv is just a prototype, but if the Tangle-based final product is anything close to as fast, intuitive, and delightful to use, it’s hard to find a reason that this shouldn’t be the identity layer for future generations. If you didn’t follow along with the experience described above, I urge you to go back and try it out. The prototype app truly does have some great UX flow.

COVID has been a scourge on humanity. Maybe Selv can be the silver lining.

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