Human on-chain network: on-chain identity proofing

On-chain identity proofing protocols aim to protect digital networks from identity fraud, a pursuit that could have far-reaching political and economic implications.

Human on-chain network: on-chain identity proofing

The Web 2.0 platform has many drawbacks, but it has formed a new, networked social infrastructure, or a trust layer, for humanity in which countless social applications are built.

Despite the initial excitement, we found that blockchain did not deviate too much from many norms. Most crypto networks verify membership through proof-of-stake or proof-of-work, which requires ownership of a given cryptocurrency and yields a “one dollar, one vote” governance model; proof-of-work requires ownership and use of mining hardware, and produces a “one cpu, one vote” system. These are not true consensus mechanisms; Bitcoin uses Nakamoto consensus, while Ether uses GHOST – or identity solutions, or authentication mechanisms – to grant membership and governance rights on these networks. Based on the dominance of possession of scarce resources, they tend to create monopolies, creating plutocracy and centralization in systems initially defined as distributive and free.

Clearly, these systems understand that identity is a critical part of the problem, but have yet to provide effective solutions for a people-centered, empowered, and democratic society. Authentication mechanisms fundamentally shape socio-economic, socio-political and socio-technical systems – and if there is any time to focus on, it is really now when these systems are breaking down.

We have recently focused on one of the most enigmatic problems in cryptography: the purpose of on-chain identity proofing protocols. These are new privacy-protecting authentication mechanisms designed to protect digital networks from identity fraud, a pursuit that could have far-reaching political and economic implications.

While Web 2.0 has contributed somewhat to the democratization of content, it has failed to drive meaningful inclusion, in part because of the lack of protection against falsified identities. Online voting may also be frequently attacked by illegal accounts. Blockchain networks likewise decentralize the creation of currencies likewise hinder the possibility of equitable distribution of value (e.g., in the form of universal basic income), and these identity frameworks can protect these currencies from attackers creating fake accounts to gain more than their fair share of value. Solving this fundamental problem is the raison d’être of on-chain identity proofs.

The key to understanding how this type of protocol works is an old, unsolved challenge on the Internet. Perhaps not previously heard of is the term “witch attack”: this is a common problem whose iterations range from spam attacks to automated disinformation via bots. This type of vulnerability was once thought to be impossible to overcome, but in the absence of any verifiable identity broker, anyone with enough resources can attack and control a network through multiple illegal virtual personas.

In terms of identity, Vitalik Buterin sums up the threat best when he calls it the “unique human problem,” the challenge of ensuring that each individual can only create one account within a given domain. In this sense, anti-witch identities are not designed to capture any specific information about users, except that they do not use false account spoofing protocols. By focusing on this particular quest for “uniqueness”, on-chain identity proofing changes the dominant view of authentication. Instead of asking “who are you” – and then unilaterally exploiting and monetizing on-chain identity data – it limits itself to “is this the only account you control?”

The result is undoubtedly extraordinary: a digital network of humans liberated from identity mediation.

In order to formalize these unique online personas, the new solutions completely abstract objective signs of identity that can be easily controlled, aggregated, repackaged, and subverted: instead, they prefer to use subjective, artificial inputs (such as explanations, conversations, or guarantees) that are more elusive and less subject to unnecessary interference.

First-generation solutions for this type of threat converge under the CAPTCHA test, which is designed to protect platforms from bot or DDoS attacks. The key problem with CAPTCHAs, however, is that they are algorithmically generated and therefore can always be solved by algorithms in the end. In fact, each of our responses to these tests is used to train AI in pattern recognition, so these systems effectively facilitate the flow of information from us humans to machine intelligence (and the Silicon Valley overlords).

Some on-chain identity proofing protocols are designed to directly invert this logic: they are not generated and solved by computation, but created and unlocked entirely by the unique cognitive capabilities of the human brain. Such tests apply to common-sense reasoning or cooperative games that are easy for humans but difficult for AI to replicate. A prominent example here is Idena, a fully decentralized blockchain in which members regularly gather for identity ceremonies where they solve FLIP tests and are rewarded with tokens for proving a unique on-chain identity. Idena has built a network in which each node corresponds to an individual (currently 4,556 members) , which has been used as the basis for universal basic income and decentralized governance applications.

On the other hand, we have trust web type solutions such as BrightID where members can vouch for each other and different applications can build their own parameters to analyze the resulting social graph and determine which identities are unique. Other strategies include formal authentication in offline gatherings ( and Duniter), obtaining metrics from DAO participation (Upala and Democracy Earth’s Equality Protocol), using cryptographic economic incentives to reward legitimate behavior (HumanityDAO), and even distributed digital courts where randomly selected jurors try a case where the legitimacy of an identity is in dispute (Kleros).

It is not just the focus on privacy that combines these different approaches. These protocols are designed to promote pro-social, community-oriented behavior, where the ability of users and apps to exploit and attack each other is greatly limited.

They are creating a workable framework for social applications that builds them on an enduring foundation of collective agency, consent, and data dignity. By doing so, the enhanced reassurance and social richness of the offline world can be leveraged by online environments – moving them away from the current Wild West paradigm of concentrated power, inaccessibility, false identities and distorted social signaling. This greatly expands the ways in which trust can be consolidated in our increasingly digital society, which could lead to a new, innovative iteration of the networked social infrastructure once created by Web 2.0 social media credentials.

There is no particular economic model or ideological bent embedded in on-chain identity protocols: they provide fertile ground for a diverse and pluralistic network ecosystem.

However, in their earliest applications, identity proof networks have demonstrated the most far-fetched dreams of cryptopunks. Universal Basic Income (UBI) cryptocurrency, peer-to-peer democracy, and public goods funding are just a few of these new pilot applications – now in business for the first time. Human networks create space for collaborative and collective models of economic operation, rather than the default of extraction and individualism. We note, of course, that these technologies are currently being implemented on a smaller scale and are still too fragile or too complex for widespread adoption. Nonetheless, their creation opens the way.

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