Nearly 1.1 billion people worldwide – or one in six – do not possess legal documentation.

This sobering statistic means that it is much harder for these individuals – mostly women, children and refugees – to access fundamental public services for healthcare, housing, and education, for instance. Imagine the implications: without a legal identity, this group is also at risk of displacement and trafficking.

To address the identity gap, this year, Microsoft will collaborate with the ID2020 Alliance and international partners to develop an “open source, self-sovereign, blockchain-based identity system”, wrote Peggy Johnson, Executive Vice President, Business Development in this blog post. The alliance is a global public-private partnership dedicated to aiding people all over the world who lack any legal form of identity.

Identities for those who need it most

Microsoft is actively exploring the opportunities for emerging technology to plug this gap. Building on previous efforts to develop a blockchain-based identity prototype, the company has now formally joined the ID2020 Alliance as a founding member, shared Johnson.

This decentralised digital identity system will allow people, products, apps and services to interoperate across blockchains, cloud providers and organisations. “We will also help establish standards that ensure this work is impactful and scalable,” Johnson wrote.

When complete, the system will be a “secure, portable form of digital identity”, and Microsoft will help governments and agencies in the implementation, Johnson added. A pilot is planned for 2018, “beginning with refugee populations”, she continued.

How will this system look like in practice? Individuals will have access to a secure, encrypted digital hub where they can store their identity data, and easily control who can view and use these data. “To achieve this vision, we believe it is essential for individuals to own and control all elements of their digital identity,” noted Ankur Patel, Principal Programme Manager for Microsoft’s Identity Division.

And as Microsoft develops decentralised identities further, it is considering Microsoft Authenticator – an app already being used by millions to prove their identities online – to provide additional support. “Once we have added this capability, apps and services will be able to interact with user’s data using a common messaging conduit by requesting granular consent,” Patel wrote.

Lessons learned

Microsoft’s road towards a decentralised digital identity system began last year, and since then, there have been several key takeaways from the experience, wrote Patel.

First of all, it is crucial that users can “take ownership of their identity”, instead of having to grant broad consent to apps and services, and risk data breaches or identity theft. This is why blockchain technology is key to creating decentralised IDs.

Next, such identity systems must also be built with “privacy by design” in mind, Patel explained. Furthermore, it is essential that a blockchain identity system of any kind is intuitive and easy to use.

The blockchain ecosystem today is made up of early adopters willing to spend time, effort, and energy managing keys and securing devices – something that cannot be expected of the average citizen, he pointed out.

The end goal is ambitious, but no less noble. With a reliable decentralised ID, billions will finally have access to the services crucial to educating their children, starting businesses, accessing healthcare, and improving their quality of life.

“We are humbled and excited to take on such a massive challenge, but also know it can’t be accomplished alone,” Patel concluded. Collaboration between alliance partners and experts all over the world will mean that one day, a decentralised digital identity system will be the key to unlocking the opportunities once out of reach for so many.

“We are humbled and excited to take on such a massive challenge, but also know it can’t be accomplished alone.”

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