Power Arrangements in Identity Systems

Since the launch of the Sovrin Foundation, Phil Windley has been blogging a lot (no, reallya 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.

The Boundaries of Westphalia

The Peace of Westphalia in the mid-17th Century established the idea of state sovereignty. Under Westphalian principles, each state has exclusive authority over its territory and domestic affairs.  That’s been pretty good for kings, ruling elites, and the lucky few who live in top-class democracies or benevolent dictatorships.

But Westphalia is on the way out. Individual sovereignty is coming in.

Territorial state sovereignty is just one way to organize human affairs. It was probably an improvement on constant tribal war, but it’s not the last step in political evolution. It’s exciting to see how the boundaries of Westphalia can be surpassed in favor of individual empowerment. People are increasingly able to conduct their intellectual affairs—speaking, transacting, and so on—without reference to nation-states.

I’m reminded of this far-sighted (or far-out) notion by a relatively practical observation from identity expert and former Utah CIO Phil Windley. In “Self-Sovereign Identity and Legal Identity” Phil says:

We’ve finally gotten to a place where self-sovereign identities are technically possible. This is a huge milestone. The next hurdle is getting organizations, including governments to allow the use of self-sovereign identities as the basis for their administrative identities.

Fun With DHS Press Releases!

Let’s fisk a DHS press release! It’s the “Statement by DHS Press Secretary Sara Kuban on Markup of the Pass ID Bill by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.” Here goes:

On the same day that Secretary Napolitano highlighted the Department’s efforts to combat terrorism and keep our country safe during a speech in New York City,

Evo Morales’ Biometric Identity System

It was with interest and concern that I read about the new election law recently signed by Bolivian President Evo Morales. The AP reports that it “sets stricter standards for voter authentication, introducing a $30 million system of biometric identification, based on voters’ fingerprints.”

Subscribe to RSS - Identity