October 19, 2023
5 min read

Science of Anonymity: Pairwise-Unique Identifiers in SSI

The Identity Dilemma in Today's Digital Landscape

In an age where digital technology is pervasive, it's astounding how inadequate our digital identities still are. With a closer look at the current state of digital identity, one can't help but be taken aback by the stark contrast to physical paper documents. It's restrictive, borderline useless, and frankly, a tad bit idiotic. When we log onto the world wide web, we're stripped of our individuality, transformed into mere identifiers for the convenience of others.

Imagine a world where your passport is locked in a safe, crowded amongst millions of others. Each time you wish to embark on a journey, you're required to contact the passport office, provide a unique username and password you've probably forgotten, and then pass your phone to the border patrol agent for identity confirmation. The mere thought of such a scenario is absurd, almost laughable. Yet, this is a startlingly accurate representation of the current digital world we're navigating.

But amidst this digital chaos, there's a beacon of hope - the concept of "self-sovereign identity" or SSI. It's a term that has started to make waves in the realm of digital identity, promising an identity that is secure, controllable, and portable. But what does that really mean?

  • Security: The foundation of any identity system must prioritize the safety of identity information. In the context of SSI, security means ensuring your identity data is inviolable and immune to unauthorized access.
  • Controllability: A truly sovereign identity places control in the hands of the user. You must have the power to dictate who can see and access your data, ensuring your privacy is preserved.
  • Portability: Freedom of movement is the essence of sovereignty. As such, your digital identity must be portable, allowing you to use your identity data wherever you choose, without being shackled to a single provider.

The advent of the internet brought forth unparalleled connectivity but also unexpected complications. Initially, the internet was designed to connect devices, not users, leading to a gaping hole in user identity management. The lack of a standard protocol for issuing, holding, and verifying digital credentials resulted in an array of convoluted workarounds. While these band-aid solutions provided temporary fixes, they inadvertently paved the way for fraud, exploitation, and data theft on a scale never before imagined.

The Genius of Pairwise-Unique Identifiers

At the heart of SSI lies an ingenious concept - Pairwise-Unique Identifiers. These are unique identifiers that allow you to manage and control your credentials and relationships without the need for a meddlesome third party. Pairwise-Unique Identifiers are the linchpins of privacy in SSI, facilitating the mixing and matching of attributes from different credentials. This enables a user to respond to challenges like "are you over 18" without revealing the underlying attribute, thereby preserving privacy.

Embracing a Context-Specific Identity

Contrary to popular belief, your identity isn't a monolith; rather, it's a mosaic of credentials that you use in a variety of ways. The notion of "identity" is therefore context-specific. For instance, you can simultaneously be an employee of a company, an international traveler, a parent, and a member of a sports club. Each role demands the sharing of different credentials and attributes. The choice to share these attributes remains in your hands, and their acceptance hinges on the trust placed in the issuer of these credentials by the requestor.

Pairwise-Unique Identifiers: Privacy's Fort Knox

Pairwise-Unique Identifiers are the champions of privacy in the realm of SSI. They allow each of your relationships to have a unique identifier, preventing correlation and tracking across different relationships. This ensures that your data remains private, secure, and under your control. You decide when and with whom your data is shared, preserving your autonomy and safeguarding your privacy.

Implementation of SSI: The Road Ahead

The promise of SSI is compelling, but it's not without challenges. Implementing a system of self-sovereign identity requires an open, common protocol for issuing, holding, and verifying digital credentials, akin to the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) for email. Moreover, it necessitates a global public utility for identity, similar to the domain name system (DNS) for the web. These are significant hurdles, but progress is being made. For instance, the Sovrin Protocol, delivered in the open-source Hyperledger Indy codebase, is an attempt to establish such a protocol.

However, issues of legal status, potential "identity isolation," integration with existing systems, and privacy and security concerns need to be addressed. Despite these challenges, the pursuit of self-sovereign identity continues unabated, fueled by the vision of a secure, private, and user-friendly internet where individuals have full control over their own identities and data.

The current state of digital identity is a chaotic patchwork of temporary fixes and workarounds. But the future holds promise. The concept of self-sovereign identity - secure, controllable, and portable - offers a path towards a more user-centric internet. Pairwise-Unique Identifiers, as the linchpin of privacy in SSI, can protect our data while enabling us to assert our identities in a myriad of contexts.

As we move forward, the adoption and implementation of SSI will undoubtedly face hurdles. But if we can successfully navigate these challenges, we stand to reclaim control over our digital identities, ushering in a new era of digital sovereignty. The journey to self-sovereign identity is a challenging one, but it's a path worth walking for the sake of our digital future.

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