Proving Identity and Trust in a Distributed World – Ebay, Publons and the Bitcoin Protocol

Recently I spoke at the Digital Identity and Security conference held in Wellington. At the event the CEO of Mega, the (in)famous file sharing site created by Kim Dotcom, Vikram Kumar, spoke of the need for privacy in the online world. As part of his talk Kumar spoke of the breakdown of trust mechanisms in the online context and the need for new ways to “prove” identity. This topic was reinforced when I took the opportunity of a visit to Wellington to have lunch with Andrew Preston, CEO of Publons, a company I’m an investor in.

Publons is a really interesting company – both in terms of the particular area they work in but also as a metaphor for broader trends in society. Publons is a platform for academic peer review – hardly the sexiest of topics. Peer review is an area that has largely been stagnant for several hundred years – while science has progressed immeasurably over that time, the systems for evaluating that science have not. As Preston says:

We literally communicate and evaluate our research the same way that Isaac Newton did when he published his first paper back in 1662. The only difference is it’s now a PDF and it’s online

That might have worked in Newton’s time when it was viable to know, the person reviewing the paper. But as access to papers becomes globally distributed, so to do the trust mechanisms around peer review – Publons aims to create a new set of metrics for measuring academic performance and this is where things get interesting and relate to trust and identity as Kumar raised it. Preston has written on the topic and started detailing his thinking in this post. As he says:

The limit of each [trust] solution tends to be the number of people we can reliably trade with — the size of our sphere of trust. As technology advances new solutions become available. Our sphere of trust increases, the economy expands, and previous solutions fade in relevance.

Over lunch Preston and I talked about the broader changes in society over the past few thousand years – over that time we have gone from knowing only a handful of individuals, through the emergence of villages where we might know a few hundred people and hence having a first hand trust mechanism for those around us to systems that enabled trust to scale. Religion arose, in part, as a way to scale trust beyond a village to a point where an individual would have “trust” for someone they may have never spoken  with. Governments, beyond their command and control functions, exist in part to scale this trust measure even further. As Preston pointed out however, the rise of the internet, when we can be connected with innumerable individuals globally, breaks down the trust mechanisms we’ve relied on for generations.

As the internet greatly increases the scale of our connections, Governments, the central arbiters of trust, are left scrambling to find solutions to the need for viable and scalable trust mechanisms. Unfortunately they’re also scrambling to ensure these new channels aren’t used for nefarious purposes and in that process, trust mechanisms are of secondary importance.

Into this space rises services that are designed to provide alternative measures of trust – we’ve seen many early examples (Ebay seller ratings for example) and are now starting to see some interesting new approaches to proving trust. In a follow up post to his presentation, Kumar brought up the Bitcoin protocol as an alternative platform on which to build trust mechanisms, he pointed to three examples that build on the Bitcoin protocol:

1. Bitmessage for encrypted peer-to-peer communications, including hiding metadata like the identity of the sender and receiver, from eavesdroppers. The message transfer mechanism is similar to Bitcoin’s transaction and block transfer system, requiring a ‘proof of work’ for each message.

2. Zerocoin that augments the Bitcoin protocol to allow for fully anonymous currency transactions by placing anonymity technology into the Bitcoin network itself. Zerocoin uses Bitcoin as a “distributed, online, append-only transaction store.”

3. Gliph adds secure mobile communications to the Bitcoin landscape. It edges into controlling digital identity “that shares as many (or as few) facets of yourself as you want to.”

Ultimately there will be many solutions for proving trust – vertical services such as Publons will build their own metrics to prove credibility, marketplaces like Ebay will aggregate feedback from both sides of a transaction to build a measure of trust but for more general purposes in a distributed environment new platforms, protocols and models will arise to give certainty and transparency to a wildly distributed world.