I have been asked by many people my opinion about Philip Sheldrake’s so called critique of SSI that went from a mailing list thread on VRM that began over a year ago to a twitter thread at some point and then a presentation at IIW and blog post he wrote. Below is the letter I wrote to Philip in February on that list that ended the thread. I thought you all might like to read it. It basically still stands. Before I get to that I need to start with the paragraph that he opens with.
Philip S.:Put starkly, many millions of people have been excluded, persecuted, and murdered with the assistance of prior identity architectures, and no other facet of information technology smashes into the human condition in quite the same way as ‘digital identity’. Therefore, if ever there’s a technological innovation for which ‘move fast and break things’ is not the best maxim, this is it.
To think that some how this community who has been working very slowly and diligently for 15 years over 31 meetings of IIW, literally 100s of side meetings at other events, literally 1000’s of working group meetings accompanied by 100,000’s of pages of notes and documentation arising from all those meetings is some how “moving fast” is preposterous. We are going through laborious standards processes that take years but get us actually open standards that anyone can use. All of this this work is also incredibly open if you want to get involved to shape it you can.
To think that our community is some how not keenly aware that identity systems have not played a role in the persecution and murder of people is proposterous. I work to remind people when appropriate that we have a dark legacy that can not be forgotten. I have the book IBM and the Holocaust. I don’t hesitate to bring this up to folks regularly. When I was at a meeting and people from a large global institution that lends money were telling me “not to worry” about the loans they were going to give to afrian countries to implement Aadhaar like systems because they were going to make sure their were laws in place. I said “with all due respect” everything the Nazi’s did was Legal” (just watch the movie Conspiracy – its also an example of really bad meetings and how they get you to bad places) Bad designs of systems won’t help when you need to prevent bad people who want to do bad things.
One way to think about technical “identity systems” is that are like “nuclear weapons for social systems” – they are very dangerous. It is because I see the potential for harm it is one of the reasons I have chosen to be in the technical weeds/trenches learning as much as I can and actively particiapting in building them for over a decade. As any one who knows my contributions will tell you I am regularly raising real issues about their design and choices being made along the way asking hard questions about how these choices will impact real people and pushing us to address real threats.
I’m not saying we can stop all bad things with these tools. I do think we have worked really hard to make them less likely to be used for evil in part because things like “seeing everywhere people use their digital ID” isn’t possible because of the underlying design architecture. I’m not saying you can’t ever do bad things in SSI based architectures but the fact that they don’t “phone home” to the government is a really big deal. More risks and issues can be considered and I co-founded a group to do just that both for technology broadly and this technology specifically.
We could have stopped working when OpenID Connect and OAuth open standards had been widely adopted (used billions of times a day BTW) for identity interactions on the internet (think the “login-with” buttons you encounter regularly – these standards make those work). We didn’t stop with just this tech solutions because that Identity Provider model was not what our original vision was. We had a vision articulated in the ASN paper, the Laws of Identity, Identity 2.0 among many others – really asking how can people be at the center of their own digital representations of themselves (from a technical point of view). Turns out PKI and making that usable is a pretty good way to get this. <– this is what SSI is usable people friendly PKI.
We have spent all this time and effort working very hard to figure out how some identity information can move between parties where appropriate and to eliminate the Identity Provider architectures that up until 5 years ago seemed like the ‘only way’ we knew we had to put our collective generative capacities together to find a way beyond this. We have and I”m really proud of our work. Do I think it is perfect. No. Do I think it is way better then the alternatives that are also competing in the market place of real technology in play now. Yes. See my research paper on Aadhaar and see this piece on Clear Technologies proposing to be the facebook of the physical world with your biometrics.
Ok here is the letter from Feb 2nd, 2019
I applaud rational critique.
I’m have repeatedly asked you what the critique of the actual technology is. I don’t get an answer. Just that it isn’t generative enough and it wasn’t developed by a multi-disciplinary enough community.
To draw from earlier threads I’m not even sure what you are critiquing.
We have developed two open standards that do some very specific technical things. The support people creating their own identifiers (on wallet software they control) and we also support them being able to have “institutions” issue them credentials (That can say whatever – credential is a data format with wide possible expression within it) that are “verified” (meaning cryptographically signed).
This is a narrow innovation – but with a lot of potential to solve some very real practical problems for how people are empowered with digital artifacts that say things about that them that either today.
- don’t exist
- if they do exist they have very bad properties (they phone home to the issuer) or
- can only function with massive identity provider middle men that control how people can present themselves online.
There is also a bunch of projects (not within the SSI/user-centric ID community) trying to run around giving “everyone on earth” a singular identity on “their system” and this will “solve everything” <– something our community has been against as a proposed architecture from very early days.
So back to my trying to understand – What are you critiquing? Is it the paper Christopher wrote and his so called “principles” of SSI. by all means go ahead and critique the heck out of those and other philosophical treatises. They deserve a lot of critical attention.
Are you actually critiquing the architectures? that have been built/are emerging around DIDs and VCs? Their is also really awesome work going on to synergize with ongoing work like OpenID Connect (and its wide deployment as a relying party front door) to solve the relying party problem.
If you want to critique this that’s great/fine too then lets get into the technical weeds – critiquing what is and hearing about your proposed alternative ways to actually build something practical in the digital network that is better then the current architectures (that also solves real world business problems). And if you have real ideas/proposals in this realm then Phil Windley’s invitation to IIW is the right one – this is where we welcome hearing about these things and seeing how work/fit.
Philip S: I have qualified my use of “generative” in terms of participating as nature, in denoting a capacity to produce unprompted change, in growing not shrinking the possible, in setting out deliberately to support psychological, sociological, and ecological health.
Fantastic. I too have deep roots in systems theory. I spent my high school years reading a lot of Ecological Economics books. I have an extensive library on systems theory and ecological thinking. Copra’s A systems view of life text book was one I used extensively to think through ecosystem design strategies for working on digital identity at a national level in a way that dare I say might be “generative” (Link to my work on Systems Leadership for identity systems) It also draws extensively on the work of Meg Wheatley (who’s book’s I’ve been reading since college) and Joy Anderson from Criterion Institute one of the most amazing system, field builders that I know.
I also agree with a lot of the philosophical points you bring up and the need to root in complexity and other more wholistic lenses. They also require the needs of marginalized people and this is what Shireen and I are working on doing with our project HumanFirst.Tech, as I said you are welcome to join us in our efforts to do Critical Threat Modeling around SSI and improve the diversity or participants in the community around SSI. Shireen and I outlined a paper to do threat modeling of SSI including social threat modeling and circulated it to organizations including Sovrin Foundation and Omidyar Network to get funding to do real critical analysis – they were not interested. We are still exploring possibilities with other funders but that is its own set of work…and we are two very busy women.
Philip S: The identities in each instance are formed through the conversation and internal narrative. The internal narrative is informed by the interactions. And the interactions modulated by the identities. Reciprocal, concurrent and forever in flux.
YES! all this is true. And the DIDs and VCs aren’t really for personal relationships between people. They are about people and a myriad of institutions that right now they are having to manage the “credentials” for this on paper – in non-digitally transmuted form…FAXing and photocopying and mailing and many expensive phone calls later to “prove” stuff about themselves form one institution to another. No one is claiming that they are for the type of interpersonal connection you are asserting they are.
I do think they provide a potential “infrastructure” on which new decentralized social tools are possible to build and can get us out of the “death grip” of facebook and google literally owning everyone’s ID and the data they generate with it.
You talk below about the sort of potential emergent social norm about “sharing all your credentials” and this becoming sort of required when meeting people. I think this would be very problematic too. I also think is a kind of endemic behavior in the dominant western culture that people do this anyways to establish social place and hierarchy.
I am very excited that there are people from Indigenous communities exploring the possibilities of how the potential to take the VC and DID architecture to represent themselves and their communities in ways that are in alignment with their traditional ways of doing identity. I know little about what they are building only that one company Ahou (lead by a Maori woman Kay Maree Dunn) working on this and that another group that does extensive work with indigenous people in south East Asia is in the very early stage of exploring possibilities.
Verifiable Credentials provide a “universal language” for any person or organization to issue a credential to any other person organization or thing for any reason. It is very broad in what it could be used for (just like TCP/IP and SMTP and HTML – have massive creative potential within them while still being standards that enable an ecosystem of different vendors and providers to play together nicely on a big open internet)
What we build with them and how early on really matters. This is maybe where we can find common ground and look at where things could go wrong and what we need to be careful about.
We need more inclusivity and diversity in the community NOW. We need funding for this.
We need real redress for the ongoing issues that women are having in being taken seriously and being listed too by a range of male leaders in the community.
We need real redress for the ongoing issues that women of color have experienced. One clear example is racism over a year while trying to contribute the voice of a woman of color to a use-case supposedly about a woman of color.
If male leaders in our community are serious about the make up of the community THEY are going to need to do some self-examination and sole searching about how they behave and how their actions have impacted women and people of color. People withdrawing from a space is a very subtle thing but it is actively happening and it is very very worrisome.
Whatever comes after the current wave of technology (that is solving some very hard problems in some good ways) can be better and more “generative” sure…but we worked really hard to get here….and its pretty good.
Our community has done a lot of parallel philosophical thinking while working together for the past 15 years <- we have worked very hard and yeah you are coming at us with a very strong very non-specific critique – like I said above what are you actually concerned about?
<<End of Letter>>
Finally I will add these last thoughts from today and touching on a quote from the lastest post.
Philip S.: We need to move together with diligent respect for human dignity and living systems.
This is why I have spent my whole professional life working on building a thriving alive, loving community that is working together with the utmost respect for human dignity. This is what we have at IIW and the network of working groups and organizations that surround it.
For me personally I’m motivated by a concern for living systems and how we as humans work together in networked, autonomous ways (Without the state or corporations controlling our identities) as was articulated in the Augmented Social Network: Building Identity and Trust into the Next Generation Internet.
So I will ask again – What about the actual technology we have actually built as a generative collective that has been meeting together twice a year for 15 years that you are concerned about?
If you think we need more diverse perspectives and “intersectionality” for realz. I invite you (Philip and the other people reading this) to participate WITH the already started group HumanFrist.tech formed by me a white woman immigrant to the US and an African American woman to engage with the negative consequences of technology and this technology in particular.
Our organization also focuses on diversifying people who are actively engaged in using, building and adopting the technology and now is the time we need to accelerate this work to make a difference in how the technology is made real in the world. We have an event outlined to do both these things – Inclusion and Interop Collab.
I’ll conclude on a positive proactive note if you feel inspired to support our work
- doing threat modeling around SSI
- growing the diversity of participants in the community,
- increasing inclusive cultural competency of those in the dominant culture in the community via trainings
- producing the Inclusion and Interop Collab
I realized at the end of this post I wasn’t done with the critique. I continued with 7 more posts.
Bonus – Why my expertise is radically interdisciplinary and not focused solely on “information technology” as Philip seems to think must be the case.