Self-sovereign identity (SSI) is hot stuff. Look it up and see how many results you get. As of today, I get 627,000 on Google. By that measure alone, SSI is the biggest thing in the VRM development world. Nothing I know has more promise to give individuals leverage for dealing with the organizations of the world, especially in business.
Here’s how SSI works: rather than presenting your “ID” when some other party wants to know something about you, you present a verifiable credential that tells them no more than they need to know.
In other words, if someone wants to know if you are over 18, a member of Costco, a college graduate, or licensed to drive a car, you present a verifiable credential that tells the other party no more than that, but in a way they can trust. The interaction also leaves a trail, so you can both look back and remember what credentials you presented, and how the credential was accepted.
So, how do you do this? With a tool.
The easiest tool to imagine is a wallet, or a wallet app (here’s one) with some kind of dashboard. That’s what I try to illustrate with the image above: a way to present credentials and to keep track of how those play in the relevant parts of your life.
What matters is that you need to be in charge of your verifiable credentials, how they’re presented, and how the history of interactions is recorded and auditable. You’re not just a “user,” or a pinball in some company’s machine. You’re the independent and sovereign self, selectively interacting with others who need some piece of “ID.”
There is no need for this to be complicated—at least not at the UI level. In fact, most of it can be automated, especially if the business ends of Me2B engagements are ready to work with verifiable credentials.
As it happens, almost all development in the SSI world is at the business end. This is very good, but it’s not enough.
To me it looks like SSI development today is where Web was in the early ’90s, before the invention of graphical browsers. Back then we knew the Web was there; but most of us couldn’t see or use it. We needed a graphical browser for that. (Mosaic was the first, in 1993.)
For SSI to work, it needs to be the equivalent of a graphical browser. Maybe it’s a wallet, or maybe it’s something else. (I have an idea; but I want to see how SSI developers respond to this post first.)
The individual’s tool or tools (those equivalents of a browser) also don’t need to have a business model. In fact, it will be best if they don’t.
It should help to remember that Microsoft beat Netscape in the browser business by giving Internet Explorer away while Netscape charged for Navigator. Microsoft did that because they knew a free browser would be generative. It also helped that browsers were substitutable, meaning you could choose among many different ones.
What you look for here are because effects. That’s when you make money because of something rather than with it. Examples are the open protocols and standards beneath the Internet and the Web, free and open source code, and patents (such as Ethernet’s) that developers are left free to ignore.
If we don’t get that tool (whatever we call it), and SSI remains mostly a B2B thing, it’s doomed to niches at best.
I can’t begin to count how many times VRM developers have started out wanting to empower individuals and have ended up selling corporate services to companies, because that’s all they could imagine or sell—or that investors wanted. Let’s not let that happen here.
Let’s give people the equivalent of a browser, and then watch SSI truly succeed.