Since the launch of the Sovrin Foundation, Phil Windley has been blogging a lot (no, really—a lot and more, more, more, more, and more) about how self-sovereign identity works and can be used. His most interesting and accessible post for a liberty-minded identity-layperson might be “On Sovereignty,” in which he briefly lays out what it means to have a “self-sovereign” identity.
Sovereignty over your identity doesn’t mean having complete control over information about yourself, but it puts you in a peer relationship with others, including the larger organizations we deal with, such as governments. “The beauty of sovereignty,” Phil emphasizes, is the “balance of power that leads to negotiations about the nature of the relationships between various entities in the system.” I want to expand on this notion that there are power arrangements in identity systems.
In a centralized identity system, the identity provider (such as your Department of Motor Vehicles) determines whether you can assert information and what you can assert. Centralized systems also often share information about you, or facilitate such sharing, whether you want them to or not. Implementation of the REAL ID Act would essentially move these powers from state governments to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
A self-sovereign identity system, on the other hand, gives you power to assert information about yourself, which others may accept or reject. It also better positions you to decline to share information about yourself. Those powers are important.
“Power” is an elusive concept. We’re more familiar with talking about power in terms of political and legal arrangements, such as how the Constitution gives certain powers to the U.S. federal government or denies all U.S. governments other powers. But absent these rules, “pre-political” power is simply the ability to do something or act in a particular way, or the capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events. Power comes down to what resources you can bring to bear in going after what you want.