Making Digital Identity Work For All: The Role of Guardianship in SSI

The story of self-sovereign identity is the story of digital freedom and inclusion.

SSI shows us the world as it should bewhere our interactions are safe and secure, where we know and trust the party on the other end, and where our privacy is protected. It takes the risk out of our transactions and allows our digital relationships—in the words of Evernym’s vision statement—to reach their full potential with confidence, dignity, and independence.

Yet, in order to truly be “self-sovereign” over your digital identity, you need to be able to check certain boxes. You need to have:

  • The right hardware (such as a smartphone, on which you can manage a ‘digital wallet’ containing your digital credentials)
  • Internet connectivity (to exchange credentials)
  • The mental capacity to be empowered and make decisions, particularly those regarding one’s financial affairs and medical care

While many of us take these items for granted, half of the world’s population is unable to meet this criteria:

3 billion

Don’t have access to the Internet

1.9 billion

Are children, dependent on their parents or legal guardian

70 million

Are refugees, often with no connectivity or legal form of identification

50 million

Are adults with dementia, with fluctuating mental capacity

 

So how can we make digital identity work for everyone?

It starts with guardianship and the exciting work we’ve been doing with the Sovrin Foundation and customers like iRespond and Secours.

With guardianship, dependents (or anyone that lacks the interest or the technical, legal, or mental capacity to manage their own identity) can entrust another individual or organization to manage their digital credentials and wallet.

In the examples above, a parent can be the identity guardian of a newborn and a caretaker can be the guardian of an adult with dementia or changing mental capacity. These guardians (who typically have legal authority and power of attorney) would be given the ability to administer the identity data of their dependents, such as proving identity and sharing medical records during a routine hospital visit.

By design, guardianship is a temporary condition while the dependent gains the capacity to become self-sovereign or reaches a certain legal age.

Here’s how it works:

In the examples of the three billion without an Internet connection or the 70 million refugees, the role of guardianship will often fall not to an individual, but to an organization with the hardware and connectivity needed to manage a digital identity (like a trusted NGO).

It may also be held jointly, with a caretaker and an NGO both acting as guardians. Doing so creates a web of trust between the two guardians and the dependent, where all parties agree to follow the same trust framework. This would allow an NGO office, like a health clinic set up in a refugee camp, to retrieve an individual’s records and prove that the individual is cleared to receive certain treatments. It would also allow the caretaker to run the check in reverse, to verify that the NGO employee is really who they say they are and entitled to provide the service in question.

The two guardians may even have different credential roles, where their permissions are limited to certain actions. The caretaker guardian, for example, may be authorized to enroll the dependent in certain services, while the organizational guardian does not have that permission. Alternatively, a certain action (like leaving the camp) may require consent from both the caretaker and a representative of the NGO.

For more on joint guardianship, see this video from the Sovrin Foundation demonstrating the mental model:

To learn more about guardianship, download the Sovrin Guardianship Task Force’s newly released whitepaper: On Guardianship in Self-Sovereign Identity

The paper represents the latest thinking, with special considerations for different contexts of guardianships; the relationships between guardianship, delegation, and controllership; and how guardianship fits into the greater SSI stack.

Guardianship in action

While much of the work on guardianship has been theoretical, we’re proud to say two of our customers are making significant progress applying the concepts to real-world problems.

Secours: Using digital identity to support our aging community

Ontario-based startup Secours is bringing together the world’s leading researchers on dementia care to demonstrate how self-sovereign identity and guardianship can lead to peace of mind and better health outcomes for the 50M adults with dementia and the greater aging population.

Just this morning, the company wrapped up its Digital Identity & Dementia Summit, where it brought together 70+ researchers, first responders, healthcare professionals to explore what SSI means for their industry and community. Our own Drummond Reed gave the keynote address, highlighting the work done by companies like Secours, iRespond, CULedger, Truu, and ATB Financial as a hint of what’s to come:

iRespond: The world’s first newborn guardianship project

iRespond, an international non-profit organization dedicated to solving the identity problem, recently hinted at the world’s first real-life implementation of a newborn guardianship project during the Secours summit. The project has the potential to impact over 1B infants and parents worldwide, and the nonprofit is using self-sovereign identity to design the solution in a way that privacy can never be compromised.

The team is preparing an official announcement, which will be published at www.irespond.org.

iRespond is also in production with several other guardianship projects across the humanitarian sector, including giving a privacy-respecting, portable identity to the 35,000 refugees in Thailand’s Mae La refugee camp and to 170,000 migrant fishermen in an attempt to reduce human trafficking and slavery.

Advancing digital inclusion, together

A simple concept rooted in a rich tapestry of technical architecture and governance, guardianship is a key component in designing self-sovereign identity systems that work for everyone. From improving patient care to helping the world’s ‘invisible’ access to essential health and financial services, guardianship holds the potential to bring trust, privacy, and security to those who need it most.

Yet, we’re still in the early days of guardianship (and SSI in general), and it’s going to take all of us working together to weave the technology into the fabric of our daily lives.

If you’re looking to contribute to the research and general understanding of guardianship, please consider joining the Sovrin Guardianship Working Group, which is already working with multiple NGOs and humanitarian organizations that have an urgent need to develop solutions to this problem.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to implement self-sovereign identity within your organization or community, we’d love to chat.

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