Blockchain And Self Sovereign Identity With Alex Preukschat
The blockchain space has risen in popularity over the years, including decentralized digital identity and self-sovereign identity (SSI). Because of this, Alex Preukschat decided to co-author a book with Drummond Reed entitled Self Sovereign Identity. In this episode, Alex joins Monika Proffitt to share a little about his background and how he got into blockchain technology. Going deep into the reason why he and Drummond decided to write their book, he goes over the four main parts of the book and their applications and discusses how SSI can help lessen fake news and internet trolls. To learn more about SSI, Alex is involved with a community that shares ideas around the blockchain space. If you want more information about bitcoins, Alex also published a graphic novel called Bitcoin: The Hunt of Satoshi Nakamoto.Author Alex Preukschat discusses his upcoming book, Self Sovereign Identity, and SSI’s uses in daily life.
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Blockchain And Self Sovereign Identity With Alex Preukschat
I’m here with Alex Preukschat. He is the co-author of the book, Self-Sovereign Identity. He has co-authored it with Drummond Reed. He’s been huge in the blockchain space. Thank you for joining us, Alex.
Thank you for having me.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into publishing this particular book? I know you’ve got several other books that came in behind that. You’ve already been a published author in several different topics. Specifically, with Self-Sovereign Identity, how did this come to pass? How did you decide, “I’ve got to write a book about this?”
I got started in Self-Sovereign Identity in 2017 and it’s incredibly new, complex and powerful technology in combination with blockchain. For the people that have been spending a couple of years in the blockchain space, we’re still struggling to understand the basics and the dynamics of what is happening there. SSI or Self-Sovereign Identity is even bigger in terms of complexity and interesting stuff that you can do with that. One of the key things is that for many of the things we want to do in the decentralized economy, you need a decentralized identity. Understanding how identity works and how it might work in the future within a decentralized way is the key aspect and that’s what got me into it.
As I was digging deeper and deeper into the whole subject, I was thinking, “I need to write this up.” Writing books, articles and stuff like that helps me to structure my own ideas and to learn. I thought, “This is a big project, but let’s get it started.” We signed up with Manning, which is one of the big technology publishers in the United States. I hope it will help everyone to go deep into this and see how this helps the decentralized economy.
How did you find Drummond Reed? Have you already worked together before? Did you know him in the space? Is there a Craigslist for this? Is there a decentralized sovereign identity list that you can say, “Who else believes this is important? Let’s talk about it.”With self-sovereign identity, you will be able to identify yourself and sign all your creations with your private key. Click To Tweet
No. We started working together in 2017. We did different things together at the same company and we still work together at Evernym, which is one of the leading companies in the SSI space around the world. Drummond is one of the key reference guys around the world for self-sovereign identity. The decentralized digital identity community has been working on the subject for many years and Self-Sovereign Identity came up as a big theme in 2016 when decentralized digital identity and blockchain combined. This concept of Self-Sovereign Identity got created, which hopefully will help people to control the data without that data living in silos, be able to decide when other people or companies access that data or how you monetize that data in a completely decentralized way.
That’s when I got started. I told him, “Drummond, I’ve been now six years working in the blockchain space and you’ve been working for 15 to 20 years in the identity space. Let’s put our efforts together in getting something like this out.” We’ve been leading this book, but we’ve got people involved from the whole industry and from the whole ecosystem. We have twenty different authors. We are writing, editing and making sure everything fits. The book has four big parts. The first part is a general introduction because when you ask people about identity, a lot of times they think, “Identity is my passport,” or something like that. In reality, identity is bigger because it’s everything you do in your life and in your social life with whom you relate to everything.
If you like something, buy something, if you have a houseplant or have a cat, for example, everything.
It’s all those things and it’s all part of your identity, but it’s distributed. With Self-Sovereign Identity, the hope is that you will be able to bring that together. All those concepts are what we try to expand in the first part. We explained in the second part how the technology works and what the key blocks are for, the technology. Also, other specific concepts like verifiable credentials, which is one specific aspect of self-sovereign identity, decentralized identifiers and then a lot of cryptography, which is unfortunately, part of the whole thing, which is often complicated to understand.
We explained in the third part the whole setup of the ideology and philosophy of decentralization, which is dear to our heart because that’s what we believe in. Finally, in the fourth part, we expand the use cases, “How will this change banking? How will it change health? How will it change a lot of different industries and subjects?” It’s a similar format to what we did a couple of years ago when we wrote another book about blockchain in the Spanish speaking world. That book became successful there with that format.
We thought, “Let’s do the same for the world because there’s nothing like that for the world yet and bring the whole concept of self-sovereign identity closer to everyone.” It will be one of the big things because when I started with blockchain, it was still small. I started writing that book in 2016 and we published it in May 2017. The whole blockchain space exploded in 2017 and something similar will also happen with Self-Sovereign Identity in years. Who knows? We hope that by that time, people will have access to this book and be able to educate themselves.
When you mentioned the four parts of the book, the first one being this entire landscape of what the digital identity looks like. I said something about everything that you would click on. A lot of our readers don’t know in-depth everything about DLT or Distributed Ledger Technology or blockchain technology. This is where people are coming to learn but when about someone being able to own their identity, withhold their identity and still like things or engage on the internet, I have to wonder what are your thoughts on that turning people into trolls in a way? One thing that people have done more that they have this perceived distance between themselves and their fellow men, they can just go on to blogs or platforms and they can troll people. They feel that’s appropriate.
It’s something that they would never say to someone’s face and they would never say to a stranger’s face. It’s this complete lack of manners that can follow people around because of their perceived distance from one another in this digital world, this landscape. If you go a further step and you remove someone’s identifying features at all, which you can have a screen name and things like that, but if it’s completely removed, do you feel as though we have any indicators that that would make people more likely to troll? Do you see other indicators where that could have a different outcome?
Both things will continue happening because with the whole internet and with any new technology that comes up, there are a lot of good things that happen with those new technologies and also bad things. There’s nothing with the internet with this global network that we have right now because you have the negative side that we’ve been discovering the last couple of years. You get chased and you have no privacy and all those different things that happen on the internet. Also, when you’re a public figure.
There are also all the benefits. We can go deep now and you have an advantage like this podcast. A few years ago, podcasting was still a niche thing and now it has become a big thing. It’s only possible because we have these technologies where you’re sitting in New York and I’m sitting in Madrid and we can do this global thing. Those are the advantages. Self-Sovereign Identity will cover a lot of those things, depending on the choices of people. Your podcast is well-titled in the sense that it’s about the trust economy.
Of course, if people can identify themselves and you have decentralized identification systems that allow you for example to say, “I’m a creator and I have a podcast,” with Self-Sovereign Identity, you will be able to sign all your creations with your private key. People will be able to verify, “This is from Monika Proffitt.” It’s not someone claiming to be able to do this for your articles, podcast and everything you do based on your digital life.
On one side, people could take advantage of the ability to withhold one’s information and become more anonymous in some sense. They also are verified so they could be known by their letter and numerical string or something. Therefore, they might troll more often. On the other side, the identity space is not so much my space. DLT and blockchains are my space. I’ve heard that there is a big threat, even to democracy and government, that’s coming up in terms of fake news. It’s the ability to fake what somebody with a public figure said or did being able to do facial distortion or reconfiguration so that it can appear as though, “Monika Proffitt said,” something that I would never say. It gets distributed and goes viral, it’s unverified. I wouldn’t be able to take it back because I didn’t generate it. Self-sovereign identity is also the number one way to fight that fake news opportunity that’s coming with facial reconfiguration.
It’s one of the big subjects but it’s fake news. You can even take it to something basic. Imagine a journalist quoting someone and saying, “This person said this.” You can then say, “I’m not signing that quote.” Journalists in the future might have to say, “I want to publish this quote. Can you please sign it with your private key?” Because then it’s a verified quote from that person and that person, first of all, will not be able to deny that they ever said it because they’ve signed with the private key. Everyone will be able to verify that and everyone will be able to verify also what the journalist is saying with that quote is true because it got signed with the private key. That’s a basic example, but would be incredibly powerful already because a lot of famous people say, “I got misquoted.” You could get into this whole game and we can have a chain of trust around that. Then it also goes to fake news where you could then verify those things because everything will be cryptographically verified.
I wonder if it’s going to be something as simple as saying like a C for corporation certified or a TM for trademark, WM for watermark, blockchain mark or DLT mark, SSI mark or something. You have a quote and if it doesn’t say that, then you know it hasn’t been marked. If it’s got a QR code, you can go and you can make sure about it. It seems like we’re on the cusp of a new economy. Trust is a new thing. It’s either trust less or it’s even more trust, and you can trust it more because it’s verified.Historically, we've seen a lot of conflict between blockchain and DLT. What’s interesting is that SSI is sitting between the two. Click To Tweet
That’s why we talk often also about the trust economy because you provide the trust framework that allows people to trust each other, trust what is happening and decentralized ecosystems. On the one hand, we provide decentralization. We believe in that because we believe that decentralization is something that will empower democracies and our society. At the same time, you provide trust to these decentralized ecosystems because you can verify those claims that are happening in these decentralized systems.
How did you first get into blockchain? What is the moment when you realized you either learn something about technology in some aspect and you said, “I want to go that way?” Do you remember that moment when you moved in that direction?
I remember it well. Before blockchain, it was Bitcoin and that was April or May 2011. I saw a video from a guy talking about Bitcoin and I got intrigued. I thought, “I’ve got to dig deep into this. Let’s see what that is,” then I forgot about it. Some people in my whole net, my social network and my work network kept insisting on me that I needed to dig deep on this. In 2013, I started digging deeper again and this time, I got rid of hooked. Since then, I’ve been into the space. Initially, there was the whole Bitcoin space and then slowly, it broadened up. People started calling it more blockchain from 2014 to 2015. I’ve been going that way since then.
You mentioned that you were passionate about the difference between blockchain and DLT, Distributed Ledger Technology. Can you talk a little bit about that? It is not a hair that I’ve heard a lot of people passionately split. Why is it something you’re passionate about?
It’s something that I’m passionate about because from my point of view, it’s important to see no matter which side you take. I usually divide the market between the blockchain space and the DLT space. With the blockchain space, I usually mean Bitcoin, Ethereum, etc. With the DLT, I usually mean private projects. What I’m trying to say with this is the basic hypothesis in the market, is in the blockchain space, what you have to see is that a lot of the people that got initially interested in Bitcoin, Ethereum, and all those things. Many of them were cypherpunks. They had this follow-up philosophy that they want to provide strong cryptographic or technological tools to the weak or the people that do not have enough power against the governments or corporations of the world, so that would be a more balanced ecosystem. That’s the ideology.
Also, there’s a strong sense in that ecosystem historically about, “We need as little state or government as possible,” and that’s a little bit the driver. In the DLT space, it’s different and the way it’s being approached. Governments to state and everything works quite well. The only thing we need to do is to improve the systems we have in place so that they become our fashion efficient and more and so on. Those different aspects drive different lines in terms of technology. In terms of DLT, a lot of these things that are trying to be done like incremental improvements. In the blockchain is a small disruption in a way.
I’m not trying to say that any of the two is right or wrong but historically, I’ve seen a lot of conflict between those two movements. What is interesting is that SSI is sitting in the middle between the two because SSI is not like, “We want to eliminate governance or anything like that,” but they’re also like, “We want to stop the surveillance economy. We don’t want big companies to exploit the data of the people or to monetize the data.” Eventually, in some cases, digital dictatorships where you don’t know what is happening with your life and it’s being controlled by other people. It’s in the middle there. It’s helpful to see a little bit of things because beyond the conflict, what I’ve learned over time is that it’s important to understand the architecture of this decentralized ecosystems.
That’s the most difficult thing because a lot of times, the people working on these architectures don’t understand what they’re doing. They’re building it as they go. They have a vision where they want to go, but they just don’t know how it will look like. This happens in both spaces. What is interesting about this is I’ve seen a few things beyond Bitcoin and blockchain space. In the blockchain and DLT space, you have real use cases but what I strongly believe in is that in the SSI space, we have strong use cases that are happening already and it will be happening in the big time in the future. That will be powerful and strong for both the blockchain space and the DLT space.
Are you linked in with all the Own Your Data campaigns that I’ve seen? There are some people here in the states that have been disenchanted with big corporations owning data and how it can manipulate all kinds of things all the way down to elections and things like that. The desire to have the individual own their own data, are you connected with the Own Your Data campaign people?
I’m not connected with them, but it’s much related because in the SSI space, you have different communities that come together and you have to what I call the privacy nerds. It’s the whole, “All my data and stuff,” then you have the decentralization nerds and open source nerds. You have different communities that are coming together in the space. Each of them for their own reasons but with similar goals in a way because they see that these technologies will provide them what they’re looking for.
You mentioned something in our line and I wasn’t sure what you exactly meant, but now it’s starting to make sense to me. It was the Trust over IP stack. For the average layman, what does Trust over IP mean to them?
Trust of IP is a strong incepted, especially Drummond is working on and he’s leading that. Trust of IP is one more way of modeling the SSI deck, so you have to blockchain the source of truth level, which is layer one. On top of that, you have the protocol layer then you have an exchange layer, which means, “How do I change exchange credentials between people so they can do the decentralized way?” Finally, the final layer of that is called the governance framework day, which is, “What are the legal frameworks that you need for different people to issue credentials and that framework?” It’s a high-level technical framework to understand how you can build the SSI economy or the SSI networks.
For any of the innovators that may be reading this, how could they include and incorporate SSI into their technology or into their products?Identity and reality are much bigger than money. Identity is basically what defines our lives. Click To Tweet
SSI is sitting there in the middle between the blockchain and the DLT space. In the blockchain space, I sometimes call it the blockchain myopia. It’s a strong focus. When you talk to Russian people, they tend to talk about, “This is the consensus model. These are the notes and this is the proof of work or proof of stock.” The same happens a little bit in the DLT space. In SSI, you have all those elements but you need to understand the language that has been developed around identity because you cannot only summarize it like, “I’ve got to have a token and what is monetary debt?” Identity and reality is bigger than money because identity is what defines our lives.
These technologies have the power to be incredibly good for society, give us freedom and liberty, and make progress in our lives. This happens in terms of money for the blockchain space and it also happens more. Even for identity, they can facilitate digital dictatorships in the future. If these technologies don’t get implemented the right way, we could have countries around the world to decide where you can go when you can go, what you’re allowed to do and what spaces you are allowed to enter. Are you allowed to travel, yes or no? It’s like this chapter from Black Mirror. It’s famous. You could create that society with SSI if you don’t implement it the right way. It’s important to us that this happens in a decentralized way with no specific group controlling it so that people can benefit from that because if it’s not implemented the right way, then you can create these dystopian societies that you see in this series like Black Mirror.
How many contributing authors do you think you’re ultimately going to have? It sounds like you’re pulling a lot of people. It looks like you’re positioned as a thought leader in this space. Do your contributing authors have any specific projects that are making this real in the space, taking these ideas, and making products for the average consumer to be looking out for and being aware of?
Yeah, what we tried to do in this book is to make it diverse. We haven’t cooperated. All those key thinkers have been doing this stuff for 15 to 20 developing the ideas about identity. We have some wonderful people like Kelly Young together with a person called Info Miner because he doesn’t disclose his name. They wrote a nice chapter about the whole evolution of the community. We have the key people that have been developing these technologies for the credentials. We have Dan Bennett and David Chadwick who were the leading thought leaders in that space. Drummond is one of the leading thought leaders in the governance framework space. For the DLTs, we have Markus Sabadello and Drummond.
For the use cases, we’ve taken different thought leaders for different verticals. For example, there’s one vertical and there’s a guy called Manny. He’s living in the UK and he has a company to create credentials for doctors. I didn’t know about this until I spoke to Manny at the time and this is interesting. As you dig deep into each vertical, you see how they all need these trust solutions for the forum verticals. In the case of the health sector in the UK, the NHS has a problem because the onboarding of doctors takes a long time. They have a strong need for onboarding doctors quickly because they don’t have enough doctors.
It sounds like something basic, but they take on average anything from six weeks to two months to onboard a new doctor to verify all the credentials are all right and everything. It takes a long time to get your doctor to the hospital and they have to do a lot of paperwork. Once you get all this digitalized, suddenly you will do this and you can go and work in a hospital. This is a basic use case. In our paper world that we have, the process is still long and slow. You need to verify many items to make the elements trustworthy that make it inefficient. These are the basic things. In the future, we will be able to do much cooler stuff as we were discussing fake news, cross-references and all kinds of things. Those are the starting points of where we’re seeing this stuff happening. This is happening already in the UK, for example.
How long do you think it will be until market sharing? It’s a common enough occurrence.
The way it’s happening is doing proof of concepts and doing it on a small scale for a limited set of hospitals and then trying it out. What technology will deliver is extremely promising and helpful, but you also need to do the right way and see, “What can go wrong?” Once you get into production, you don’t want to have any big shakeout. It will still take some time. It’s difficult to say but it will take years until we see it on a bigger scale. Considering what you’re talking about and what we’ve been saying in the blockchain space, this is one of the most promising things in the short term.
I’ve been enamored with your data movement. I was excited to interview you and find out more about the SSI specific space. When worlds are colliding, this is a topic that needs to be addressed. I’m glad that you’re writing so much about it. Not only this, but you published the first graphic novel about Bitcoin, which is also cool. If somebody wants to have an easy read about Bitcoin and not have to dig into the hard part, they have some pictures along with it and they got a place to go for that. I want to thank you for all your work in the SSI space. This is wonderful. I want to put you in touch with Own Your Data people in case you’re looking for more people to be a part of your book. When is the book going to be published?
Hopefully by September or by the end of 2020. We’re still working on finalizing chapters because each of the chapters we write goes all through the review process. Based on the review we get, we edit the book and make changes to it. We still have to publish a couple of chapters. You can review that once we have that ready and we’ll let it out.
Most big projects are like herding cats. I’m glad you’re doing the heavy lifting and the undertaking of this project. It’s going to be great. When it comes out, we’d love to do another interview to see how it’s going, how it’s received, and what feedback you’ve gotten. That will be fantastic. Once you have one, I’d love to get a copy and get a shot to read it. This is going to be exciting.
The first eight chapters of the book are available already, so people can read them already online. You can pre-order the book. If you search for Manning’s Self-Sovereign Identity, you can get it. I’m happy to receive feedback on that too because we’re trying to incorporate as much feedback as possible. Hopefully, when that goes out, most people will be happy when they read it and say, “This helps me to understand what this is about.”
That is the whole point. We’ve got to educate them about what’s now becoming available as an option of what you can own about yourself and make sure you have a private. There’s no reason why someone else should be benefiting from your information when you can benefit from it yourself. Thank you so much for putting this out. Alex, I’m glad that you’ve been doing this work. Thank you so much, Alex. This has been fantastic. Do you have anything else you’d like to close with? It sounds like we covered the world’s problems.
If anyone is interested in learning more about SSI, you can also check out SSIMeetup.org, which has become one of the main communities in the SSI space and we have plenty of learning materials. We publish all materials with the Creative Commons by Share-alike license with Google slide decks, webinars and Slideshare.net, so that you can reuse material. People are creating local communities in the world. We have all over the world and people have been using it, but they have been also creating local SSI meetup communities. The first one came up in Korea. Nothing often will pop up, so that’s another way of trying to encourage people to get into the SSI space.
That looks like you’re going to be doing that in more places throughout the world as you travel with the book tour as well. Correct?
Yeah, it’s separate from the books. It’s something else that we started doing years ago and it has become successful. When we started this, it was small and has been growing. We’ve been growing together with the space.
I’m glad that we got to learn about the SSI Meetup as well. Thank you so much again for coming on.