"Is 'acceptably non-dystopian' self-sovereign identity even possible?"

An essay about self-sovereign identity, decentralized identity, verifiable credentials, soulbound tokens, and all those other terms that have been flying around lately.

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The title comes from the May 2022 paper by Weyl, Ohlhaver, and Buterin titled "Decentralized Society: Finding Web3’s Soul", where they describe "soulbound tokens" and their vision for "Decentralized Society (DeSoc)".

my hopes for them coming up with a reasonable definition for "acceptably non-dystopian" are not high given this part of the paper

@molly0xfff "Like the amniotic fluid is filled with the feces of the fetus as it enters the 4th quarter, you wallet will be filled with..." is how i'd go 🤣


I've posted this on HN, will replicate here.

1) The trilemmas do not need to be *solved*. They just need to be *acknowledged* when you are designing your application so that people can understand the types of trade-offs being made. When sybil-resistance is not a required, you focus on privacy and decentralization. When sybil-resistance *is* required, you choose if you'll sacrifice privacy or decentralization.

Depending on the use-case, one might be preferred over the other.


2) "Security practices are hard, no one will do it properly, they will rather have some expert that can do it for them".

Well, if you don't want to deal with security hygiene, you delegate. Just like the majority of people will rightfully prefer to have a bank to manage most of their funds, one could still envision a future where service providers will act as a proxy to anything that requires "your" identity(ies).


In general, what upsets me with anti-web3 people is that they fall into the *same* trap as the maxis: they start from this ridiculous notion that "web3" is about creating a Highlander solution (there can be only one!) and that this solution needs to satisfy all constraints, otherwise it is rubbish that needs to be discarded.


The important thing by having decentralized identities is that it gives new *options* for whole new classes of applications that do not exist. No one is being forced to adopt a system just because it is now possible to do it on a blockchain, and we do not need to destroy the current systems if they work well - or at least if they work better than any alternative. There will be even plenty of cases where the status quo is totally fine.


How can centralization help implement privacy-preserving Sybil resistance? (Not rhetorical, I'm sometimes out of the loop with protocols such as escrow.)

If there's privacy, it's hard to know who people are even if you're centralized; Wikipedia for example (where the problem is called "sock puppets").

Sybil resistance sounds good to me, I'm getting sick of waking up in strange rooms in weird clothes trying to find my wallet and not recognizing the name on any of the ID cards.

@Sandra @molly0xfff I've been toying with the idea of verifiable credentials myself, for a good decade and a half, actually, and I genuinely think there is potential there. There are a couple of things the blockchain world gets very wrong, though, the first of which is that it needs to involve any kind of blockchain/record.

But the far more worrying thing is that they all seem to want to enforce things computationally about people. That's the dystopian bit.


Yes. A little bit of Sybilness can be good for stuff like witness protection or fixing errors. It'd be dumb to make identity records too immutable.


@Sandra @molly0xfff Privacy and centralization is really more of a question of which data you reveal to whom. Let's say you do want to receive money to your bank account. As Swiss numbered bank accounts show, you really just need to provide an opaque identifier of sorts to achieve that.

You want to verify that it's at a particular bank? Have that bank sign it. You want to verify that it's owned by some person? Have the bank sign a hash over the person's id...


That part is super easy, barely an inconvenience but that doesn't address Sybil at all.


@Sandra It prevents such attacks if the person ID is issued via a similar system, sure. Have an opaque identifier signed by the state. The centralization of that signing provides the Sybill resistance. @molly0xfff

@Sandra It's also privacy preserving because each use case may require a different ID only. Back to the banking example, I may provide a person ID that the bank issued for me. Nobody needs to know my state issued person ID for a bank transfer. @molly0xfff

@Sandra @molly0xfff ... and the opaque identifier. You don't need the bank to provide the person ID, because the person will do so.

The problem I see in most approaches is that they're inflexible; they try to prove some global truth, and in order to capture enough use cases, they include and leak more data than is necessary for each individual use case.

Implementors should focus a lot more on how the offline world already operates.

As another example, in...


"You don't need the bank to provide the person ID, because the person will do so."

And that's not a solution, it's kicking the can down the road🤷🏻‍♀️

@Sandra Yes, actually, because it's about minimizing data. What else is privacy but that?


The problem was proving identity. "The bank has seen a proof of identity" isn't a solution to creating such proofs of identity in the first place.

@Sandra Of course it is. That's the whole point.

You don't need to prove identity in the vast majority of use cases, you just need to prove that such proof exists. You need to be able to trust that proof-of-proof, which means you need to trust someone else to issue trustworthy proof-of-proofs.

In the banking case, the obvious issuer is the bank; they have a vested interest in it after all. In other use cases, less centralisation may be better.

@Sandra The bank may wish to be a root of proof, or request a proof from the state. In either case, since the whole thing eventually ties back to the real world, it'll involve some real world ritual. Once per root. And only that root needs to know anything at all about you, the person.

This isn't even centralization in a lot of senses, because proofs can be issued such that the root doesn't have to be consulted, or any intermediary. It centralizes identity proving, yes.


"It centralizes identity proving, yes."

And how to implement that was what I was asking in the first place!

@Sandra OK, but... that's different in every legislation and has nothing at all to do with verifiable credentials. That's entirely in meat space.

Hereabouts it goes back to birth certificates. Your community registers each birth, and issues birth certificates from the data it registers. If you want an ID, birth certificate is the proof that you should get one.

You could bootstrap the digital ID by presenting one and a public key, and receive a signature over the pubkey.

@jens So be born in state-approved hospital. But that's still an issue for refugees and others. Kids born in taxis.

Also I'm getting sidetracked into how difficult and unsolved this is even in meatland when my original question was very specific to Molly's triangle diagram.

Usually with triangle diagrams the point is that you can have any two but not all three. And it's easy to see how you can have decentralized private identities that are Sybil vulnerable. But it's not easy (for me who is still struggling with understanding these protocols and issues) to understand how you can have Sybil resistance even without privacy or without decentralization. Sybil vulnerability seems like a difficult problem in any set of circumstances.

@Sandra OK, so meatspace identities have problems, true. Why should we expect digital identities to be *less* problematic? If they're bootstrapped off meatspace identities, they're "good enough" pretty much by definition. Yes that does kick the can down the road to meatspace, but doing anything else seems to ask too much, so I'm content with that.

The trilemma Molly presents relates to self-sovereign identities. In order *not* to bootstrap off meatspace, you have to...

@Sandra ... include enough data in an identifier to be verifiable as belonging to an individual by anyone, which means it's essentially public information (even if you do not share it with the world on a blockchain). And that is how centralization preserves privacy by bootstrapping (doesn't have to be meatspace).


This is a kinda difficult thing to do, is the problem.
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@Sandra But equally, it's perfectly fine to have non-overlapping proof roots. It's the use case that needs to determine which root or roots are acceptable.

Voting may need a state operated root. You show your ID at the voting booth, after all.

Shopping does not, as a rule. I don't tend to show my ID at the checkout.

The big issue I see with most proposals is that they treat all identification issues as the same, and as the initial root proof.


That's not the point at all!

Like, here I am wondering how to make a painting and then all I hear is advice for how to picture frames over the mantle! And then when I'm like "How do I make paint" and you're like "How to hang the frame is of course the whole point."

@Sandra I'd be happy to phrase it differently, but I'm not sure what you're asking, then. Because the original proving of identity, the root I am referring to, is a solved problem. We've been doing variations of it long before the digital realm got involved.


"Because the original proving of identity, the root I am referring to, is a solved problem."

And I caveated as much in my original question; that I was not asking "whether" but "how".

Here in Sweden it's a huge issue.

ID is based on providing your last ID within five years of its issuing. If it lapses you're SOL, and they ask for employers, registered roommates, utility bills etc.

Digitally it's based on having a specific app from Play or Apple. It's Not Good.

And, if The State can't even figure it out, how can something like Wikipedia?

@Sandra @molly0xfff ... order to gain entrance to an adult-only event, maybe an identifier needs to include something the person can show as proof they're the subject, and a birth date. Actually, you don't need a birth date, you just need a boolean flag and a signing date. If the flag was true at the date of signing, it'll be true later.

The system really needs to be focused on providing just the bare minimum for a use case is my point.

@jens @Sandra @molly0xfff I agree, that's the creepy part. Like, what would happen if a criminal record was mistakenly delivered to my address? What if someone acquired the key that a PD uses to issue such records? What if your university mistypes your address when sending out your degree? Normally you could solve this type of errors, but kind of the whole point of blockchains is that you can't. Users need flexibility, you can't blame them if a system fails, no matter how brilliant it is.

@molly0xfff Even giving blockchains the benefit of the doubt, that someday they might become reasonably scalable and be applied to implement systems that are actually useful, it's crazy to see how far people have to take things. I mean, as of now this stuff just barely works as a way to send meme tokens around and they're discussing putting people's life on there?

@molly0xfff With every new development or promise in the crypto world, the "hell" in my "hell no" response becomes more emphatic.

@molly0xfff I might ask for your help, if you can add G1 to your research, I'm not sure about that project, but I think it might be on the same line.

@molly0xfff While I am generally pro-cryptocurrency, I've always been skeptical of attempts to bind keys to human beings. This is the best write-up I've seen for why that probably can't (or shouldn't) be made to work.

Intuitively, it seems like attempts to use technology to bypass "natural" social networks and thus our intuitive trust mechanisms end up being on net harmful. This is not to say that we shouldn't strive to minimize the amount of trust needed, just that we are often replacing it with misplaced trust in bad systems like Amazon ratings or Reddit votes.

I think it was @pixouls who said (or boosted?) something along the lines of "trustless systems tend to benefit the least trustworthy". This essay reminded me of that.

Thanks for writing this!

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