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Identity for All - A Crisis in Demand of Input from the Legal Industry

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

When we think about an ‘’Identity Crisis’’ most of us would probably have a humorous flashback to our teenage years trying to figure out just exactly who we were or wanted to become. Well, with what I hope to be an appropriate level of doom and gloom, there is actually a much more important identity crisis that is of horrible proportions. In 2017, the World Bank reported a whopping 1.1 billion people worldwide that lack any form of official ID. Identification is crucial to just about any given aspect of living one's life: obtaining healthcare, banking and economic participation, education, and a whole host of other elements important for basic life quality. That was 2017. Now, consider the implications of the exponential growth rate of human populations, and imagine what that 1.1 billion will grow to in 2019, 2020, and 2021. It’s truly paralyzing, isn’t it?

This lack of identification that many populations of people experience globally, is a direct gateway to the likelihood of becoming a data point in the epidemic levels of poverty, human trafficking, and inaccessibility to health and education. It’s also worth drawing attention to the vast numbers of people that are considered ‘’displaced persons’’. These are individuals that are either refugees, seeking asylum, or displaced from their homes within their own countries. These people too fall prey to issues related to either not having an authorized ID, or otherwise being unable to access their identification and related credentials. The UN reported in 2017 ‘’a record 65.6 million people displaced worldwide’’. Often these people have professional or educational backgrounds that could allow them to build new lives and participate in the economy; however, because of issues related to obtaining their credentials and legitimizing their identity, they are effectively ‘’invisible’’ and ‘’stateless’’ and as such unable to build a new life for themselves and their families.

Digital Identity Could Hold the Magic Key When we think of someone's authorized identity, we generally link it back to the authorizing party, whether that be their government, educational institution issuing a credential, or some other centralized organization that the person needs to obtain such identity or credentials from. Digital identities are paving the way to a completely new way of conceptualizing what identity is, how it’s issued, managed, renewed, or any of the other plethora of things we do with our ID. Digital identities (DID’s) are at their base digital representations of attributes related to us, or any other entity with such attributes, that are used through computer systems.

This is not all that mind blowing, I admit. However, if we look at the implications of such digital identities, incorporated with emerging technologies, we can prepare to experience a radically different conceptualization of what identity really means, and the implications it could have for a revolutionary shift of truly global proportions. Digital identity not only provides the opportunity for vastly more efficient methods of using and managing data, but is also paving the way toward actualizing self sovereignty; the authority and ability to govern oneself. With this, you will see, we being to enter mind blowing territory.

Self Sovereign Identity, A Radical Shift There has been a recent uprise in a movement toward materializing systems of Self Sovereign Identities (SSI). An SSI is an identity structure that belongs to the individual, is obtained, controlled, and stored by the person for which it represents. Consider how you manage your identity now, you hang onto your passport for dear life, you manage your bank cards, and hide your birth certificate deep away in your closet (or floor boards?). SSI’s are essentially still this, but digital, and with the added benefit of not being dependent on a centralized database or authority for management and control. In addition, SSI’s are made possible by blockchain technologies, and the latest evolutions of cryptography and cyber security; enabling heightened privacy, interoperability, and immunity like never before.

Phil Windley, CEO of the Sovrin Foundation, a global public utility for self-sovereign identity, has provided the following insight: ‘’Self-sovereign identity represents a monumental shift in how identity functions on the Internet. Internet identity systems have traditionally only supported a limited set of attributes and required prior agreement and custom integration. SSI frees Internet identity from this narrow view by introducing support for the exchange of credentials by individuals and organizations acting as peers.’’

In its early days of adoption, SSI’s are likely to just be digital replications of our current identity systems. However, if we look at what is happening in some third world countries right now we can (surprisingly for some) get a look at the future of what this technology could enable globally.

According to a World Bank index in 2017 1.7 billion people worldwide are considered to be ‘’unbanked’’, simply meaning these people do not have a bank account. However, cryptocurrencies are increasingly being used in these populations and beyond for everyday economic participation. For example, there is an app called M-Pesa that enables peer-to-peer transactions of cryptocurrencies, and a reported $10 billion was transacted through this app in 2016 in Kenya alone. Now imagine these transactions to include everything else like passport authentication when traveling across the border, or managing your health records, or authenticating your academic credentials. Imagine further, the possibility of having records that legitimately identify you, but that aren’t issued by a centralized government at all. Now we’re starting to get into the territory of envisioning the possibility of truly global systems of legislation and governance. Further yet, we can imagine borderless global economies and self governing world communities. Now, that is mind blowing, non? I’ll now move back into the pragmatic, the now, and how this matters to you as a legal professional.

Self Sovereignty and the Digital Future Needs You Having worked in legal innovation now for the past bunch of years, there is at least one thing that has become readily apparent: legal professionals are terrified of a prospectively ‘’jobless’’ future. Enough people have now shed light on the emergence of new jobs, and other transformations that suggest this isn’t as worrisome as some may think. But, I’d like to take a different angle. I’ve spoken with many legal professionals and academics, and the law is many things, but one thing for certain is that it is incredibly complex, and these people who have spent years studying and practicing it definitely know more than I and the average person about it.

Projects like the Sovrin Network, mentioned above, and others dealing with identity and future global systems are very driven in their mandates to incorporate sound legislative frameworks and input from legal professionals. A great example of an organization putting this at the forefront of their purpose, is PeaceTones. This is an organization that works with refugees to record and publicise their music, while working to help them store and sell their music online in the form of digital assets corresponding with a digital identity.

Jeffrey Aresty, of PeaceTones, explained it like this: ‘’Conceived by lawyers discoursing across cultures and many legal systems, the new open world bazaars are being created now. As never before, lawyers have a chance to use their training to [support efforts] which embody the human right we all have to pursue opportunity.’’

The jury is still out on whether or not robots are going to automate existing legal systems in full, but with the emergence of new technologies and the global systems they’re making possible, we can be very clear that new law is needing to be made regularly, and at rapidly increasing speeds. I for one, do not wish to leave this up to automated robots, and believe that legal professionals and academics should be gearing up and plunging into this new terrain at an unprecedented rate. Given the pace at which we are now at in terms of the exponential on technological evolution, legislative bodies around the world need to pick up the pace accordingly; it’s legal, policy, and regulatory professionals who should be taking that front row seat. Now, let’s bring it on!


About the Author

Aileen Schultz is a Toronto based award winning growth and innovation strategist with a global footprint, and a passion for creating better exponential systems. She works with SME's across several sectors with a focus in legal and blockchain technology. She is a founder of the Global Legal Hackathon (40 cities, 22 countries), and an avid proponent of progressing sensible global systems through technology.

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