It is that 'year of' thing again!

There's quite a lot of talk about 'year of digital credentials'

If you’ve been around the Linux world for a while the cliche or trope (depends on which camp you are in) about ‘the year of the Linux desktop’ should not be unfamiliar to you. Every technology seems to go through a cycle of attention, hype and activity which prompts a similar phase. 2021 is being talked about in terms of ‘the year of digital credentials’.

Before we talk more about this let’s be clear about a few things

  • digital credentials are not a novelty item and they have been around for a while. In fact, the multitude of ‘e-pass’ or ‘e-something’ which have existed on smart devices establish this

  • wide adoption of digital credentials have to also factor in non-digital consumer experience especially in low-tech or no-tech modes. The notion that everyone has or will have smart devices is flawed and often leads to the gross inequity which comes about

Alright, with these 2 items out of the way (there are more, but let’s just move along!) it is worth considering that the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the shot in the arm to the notion of being able to produce a digital credential eg. a test result or a vaccination record etc which enables access to services including cross border travel. Among the many challenges involved in achieving this goal, let’s being with 3 simple ones

  • Ubiquity - or, everyone who needs such a digital credential has access to them through easily understood processes

  • Portability - or, that the data presented by means of the credential is easily exchanged across systems and even borders where international travel is involved

  • Security - or, that the issuance, receipt and exchange of these credentials do not deliberately undermine the security and privacy of the individual (as applicable within the legal requirements of the jurisdictions)

At this point we have not even started to discuss the classic trilemma that is represented by Zooko’s Triangle. At a certain sense of scale this requires more than just technology though - it needs the underlying framework of governance and rules of engagement. Across the board there is now a frenetic pace to ensure that digital credentials which align with the Principles of SSI are available for consumers of services.

Some of the leading authorities (and likely governance authorities) have publicly declared their intent around enabling a credentials based pass system eg. IATA Travel Pass. The National Strategy For The COVID-19 Response And Pandemic Preparedness (PDF) includes elements which indicate a certain degree of amenability to the adoption of digital credentials.

So, when do we really get to the place where it feels like ‘the year of digital credentials’? To answer that we need to think through this in terms of systems where ‘network of networks’ is a possibility. And to get there we have to cross the bridge of interoperability. Why is this important you might ask? Well, it is likely impractical to insist on everyone building their application and services architecture on one single stovepipe (of distributed ledger, credential exchange and credential formats etc). There are a raft of reasons why this will not happen. And yet if we want to power business and trade revival using digital credentials we’ll have to factor interoperability as a primary design requirement as well as accessibility.

With nearly all efforts at prototypes and pilots being present across the various Foundations engaged in the domain of decentralized identifiers and digital identity there is good reason to bet money on this coming up in a more robust, well designed and inclusive manner. If you are interested in participating across these efforts, you will be able to find knowledgeable allies in the Trust over IP Foundation, Sovrin Foundation, DIF and Linux Foundation Public Health. Almost all of these organizations allow signing up as a member and then using the forums (often a Slack instance). This is an effort that will never find itself at a problem of ‘we have enough people’ - so do join up, contribute and bring to bear your expertise around how to address this situation. It is also likely that you are already working with your regional governments in a specific role - these liaison relationships are a good bridge to have. We need you to ensure that digital credentials are available in the right manner and for the right reasons!