Your own identity on the Internet

If you ever thought about having users login to your site, you’ve probably considered adding Facebook Login, or OAuth2 and OpenID Connect. And for good reason – they’re widely used.

An identity you own, to sign your content

But what if you wanted to allow users to own their identity? What would that look like? For a lot of technical folks, establishing identity usually means using a private key. Establishing identity using a private key also has the advantage that the user owns their own identity.

Let’s say that you establish your identity using your own private key. Any content you create can then be signed by you using your private key. Anyone can verify that it was you who created the content if they have your public key.

How does someone looking at a signed piece of content know what key was used to sign it? Well, you can publish your public key somewhere, and put a URL to that key next to the signature on the content you create. The URL would allow the reader to download the public key they need to verify the signature.

Mirrors

But what if the URL to the public key goes down? Well, we can setup mirrors for public keys (you might use alternatives such as key servers here). Users should be able to notify mirrors of a new public key that they’ve published. Sites hosting content can also send cached versions of public keys (that they picked up from the original source, or from a mirror) included in the content.

Claims, and verified claims

So far, we only have the ability to establish that some piece of content was created by someone owning a certain key. But we have not established who the person behind the key is as of yet. How can we do that? Well, let’s say that with every key, you can have a set of claims – metadata attributes associated with them. So for example, we can say some key key1 belongs to some user claiming that their fullName is Joe Blogs, and that their facebookProfile is http://facebook.com/joeblogs (fullName and facebookProfile are claims here). Great, so now we can say that wherever we see content signed with key key1, it belongs to Joe Blogs, whose Facebook profile is at http://facebook.com/joeblogs.

Of course, the obvious problem with this is that anyone can publish their key, and associate it with a bogus set of claims. What we need is a way to have verified claims. For example, we would especially want to verify that someone who claims to own a particular Facebook profile actually owns that profile. How do we do that? Well we can have a service that provides verified facebookProfile claims. That is, a service that uses Facebook Login to allow the owner of a key to login to their Facebook account to prove ownership, and only then confirm that the owner of that key owns a Facebook account.

Here is how that flow might work:

  1. The owner of the key signs a facebookProfile claim with their private key – let’s call the signature they produce here claimSignature
  2. They provide claimSignature to the Facebook verification service, which should first check that the provided claimSignature is correct and was produced by the owner of the key
  3. It should then have them login to the Facebook profile they claim to own using Facebook Login
  4. Once the service has verified that they own the Facebook account, the service would then sign claimSignature, with it’s own private key to create a verifiedClaimSignature

Now, if we were given the claimSignature, and the verifiedClaimSignature, together with the facebookProfile claim, we can trust that association a bit more. We would need to decide to trust that the Facebook verification service we used is a trust-worthy service in evaluating facebookProfile claims. If we do, all we need is the public key for that service to verify the verifiedClaimSignature and confirm that the facebookProfile provided can be trusted.

Decentralized identity

What does this allow at the end of the day? Suppose you wrote a blog post, or posted a comment somewhere on the web. You can now sign that content, and someone reading the content would be able to know that it was you who wrote it. And they would be able to know that based on the identity you own – your personal private key. Everyone can own their own identity.

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