Our Digital Identities

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Our Digital Identities

Blockchain may be the right answer for security

Blockchain, the backbone technology behind Bitcoin, has grown exponentially since its inception in 2008. Since 2013, Google searches of “blockchain” have risen by 1,900 percent and according to Accenture, 90 percent of banks worldwide are now exploring blockchain technology. Among them is India’s Yes Bank, who recently announced a number of blockchain implementations that support vendor financing for their clients.

The potential for blockchain technology in India is vast. Speaking at the BlockZero conference in Mumbai last December, Neha Punater, head of digital strategy, innovation and fintech at KPMG India, highlighted the technologies’ potential to “crash cycle time” and reduce costs across the board. With many now arguing blockchain technology may provide better security, transparency and efficiency, it’s easy to see why blockchain technology is being used in an increasing number of industries beyond financial services, including telecommunications, media and the public sector. In fact, it’s not only India’s businesses that are set to benefit, but millions of people too, thanks to the unique set of attributes that make it a useful tool to help secure our digital identities.

The process of identifying a person has been hugely disrupted by the digital world. Historically, identity has been fairly straightforward. For example, a government institution could verify the name and address of a citizen by conducting identity checks with banks or telecommunication providers. As these organizations are regulated to “know their customers,” they are able to corroborate the information held by the government institution and therefore verify the identity. Digital identities need to function in a similar way, but it’s much harder.

Without tangible, in-person interactions, it can be difficult to establish trust and ownership in a digital world. This is where the blockchain comes into play. Blockchain technology allows people, independent of each other, to rely on the same shared, secure and auditable source of information for managing identity. When used in conjunction with a mobile authentication service, blockchain could be the key to securing our digital identities.

Blockchain Basics

When a user’s information is added to the blockchain, it is inserted as a single block containing the user’s identity attributes and the user’s public key, all signed with the user’s private key. At this stage, the level of confidence in the user’s identity is at base level. Other entities, such as a bank or electricity provider also represented within the blockchain can establish relationships with the user by signing the particular attributes of the user that are relevant to that relationship.

As more relationships are established for each person within the blockchain, confidence in the accuracy of the attributes, hence the identity of one’s self grows. As more transactions take place involving that individual, the “reputation capital” of the identity also grows. In other words, confidence in the identity’s accuracy increases as does confidence in the trustworthiness of the person behind it. And, if any of the relationships change, this will be recorded in a separate block with a cryptographically signed timestamp that is visible to the entire blockchain.

The Combined Power of Blockchain and Mobile Authentication

One critical aspect of any modern, digital service is finding the right balance between convenience and security. Security in the blockchain is upheld with public and private keys. The public key is used to identify the user and the corresponding private key is the credential that the user needs to keep protected. The public key is almost equivalent to a user ID, and the private key equivalent to a password or biometric.

However, a public key is not a convenient “user ID” and the private key is not something that can be easily remembered, such as a password, or unique to that person, such as a biometric. Securely storing the private key to ensure that it can’t be used by others, while being able to easily use it to verify the associated identity, is a real challenge.

One solution is to introduce the concept of a wallet through which each person can confirm their attributes and manage their public and private keys. This wallet could be identified through a more convenient user ID, such as the user’s mobile phone number and be unlocked using conventional multi-factor authentication. The individual can then prove that they own their private key and verify their identity.

Mobile authentication services are an ideal framework for supporting such wallets. Put simply, mobile authentication ensures the person accessing an account is really who they say they are and by adding two factor authentication the user is asked to verify their identity via their mobile phone via a pop-up challenge to enter their PIN or biometric password. This happens whenever the user logs into their accounts, providing a very simple, convenient, and secure way of authenticating themselves and asserting their identity. The combination of a platform for administering the wallets and blockchain for administering the identity is a perfect solution to providing digital identity and in a way that is “conveniently secure.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Security Today.

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