In the Scramble to Fix Digital Identity, uPort Is a Project to Watch

Talk to any three blockchain entrepreneurs, and at least one of them will pitch a way for internet users to own their own data.

Recent privacy debacles at Yahoo, Equifax and Facebook have driven home the realization that anyone with a smartphone is walking, talking, searching, eating, posting, browsing fodder for advertisers, machine learning algorithms and thieves. And users neither control this data nor receive any compensation for giving it up.

Yet, blockchain fever – entering the mainstream at the same time as this data sobriety – appears to provide an antidote, and a rash of decentralized applications has appeared to help users monetize their data.

Using cryptographic technology such as public-private key pairs, such projects aim to let users of digital services control the data they produce, many times offering a marketplace where users can do things like selling their Yelp bookmarks to an advertiser for a few bucks’ worth of cryptocurrency.

But the team at uPort, an ethereum-based identity protocol, is going after a bigger prize.

Rather than ask, “How can I get paid for my data?” uPort aims to answer, “Who am I in the digital age?”

For Reuven Heck, co-founder and project lead at uPort, this isn’t the kind of problem that can be answered with just another app. Because the internet wasn’t built with an identity layer embedded, Heck said, tweaking the top of the internet – the application layer – just isn’t cutting it.

Rather, the internet needs to be rebuilt at a deeper level, and according to Heck, uPort aims to do just that:

“We believe we now have technology that allows us to build this as a horizontal layer across the internet … without being owned and controlled from an individual company.”

That ambition has led uPort – among the oldest projects under the umbrella of ethereum startup and incubator ConsenSys – to be regarded as one of the most exciting blockchain-based approaches to rationalizing users’ scattered, insecure digital identities.

The internet of identity

It’s notable that uPort has managed to attract a significant amount of interest despite not being focused on the end users.

According to Danny Zuckerman, uPort’s head of strategy and operations, the project emerged from persistent calls across the ethereum developer community for an identity system – preferably a decentralized one, given ethereum’s fundamental mission.

With that background, uPort decided the best approach was to give developers with a way to delegate the task of storing user-specific data on the blockchain by, Heck said, “integrating a few lines of code into your application.”

And yet, it’s not necessarily safe to assume that uPort will only be buried in decentralized applications’ innards, hidden from end users.

“There will be a lot of different ways that users interact,” said Zuckerman, because “it’s really this identity layer for the internet, and there’s not one way you interact with the internet.”

To explain what was meant by an identity layer for the internet, Zuckerman began with the “top-down mechanism” of the analog world, in which the government defines an individual’s identity in a limited number of ways: a passport number, a national identification number, a Social Security number, a driver’s license number. The specifics depend on the jurisdiction, but most people have one or two primary, officially sanctioned identifiers.

The web, by contrast, is a free-for-all.

“With the internet there started to be all kinds of other identity systems, typical username and password – basically anything where you identify who you are and create an account – and so there was this proliferation of many, many identities,” Zuckerman said. “And that started having user data captured in lots of different places, not under their control.”

And for many blockchain enthusiasts, that just doesn’t make sense. On the one hand, these multiple identities are challenging for everyone to juggle (without being subject to security slip-ups). On the other hand, allowing a single, centralized party take over digital identity is not ideal either.

Rather, uPort’s idea is to put users in charge of holding and, if they choose, sharing the data associated with their identity, using the same cryptographic protocols that allow them to control cryptocurrency without the need for a third party. And this goal is frequently called “self-sovereign identity.”

A crowded space

UPort is far from the only project working towards the goal of self-sovereign identity using blockchain technology.

The Sovrin Foundation is one of the most prominent examples of uPort’s competition.

The foundation is behind Project Indy, a set of identity tools launched last year by the Hyperledger consortium. In contrast to public, permissionless uPort, Indy is a hybrid: anyone can view the ledger, but writing to it requires permission. Also in contrast to uPort, Project Indy is planning an ICO…

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