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Blockchain Attestation Taxonomies

By Christian Lundkvist, ConsenSys


An attestation represents a cryptographic proof of a claim made by an identity, usually about another identity. Attestations provide a way for an identity to make a claim that can then be verified at a later point in time. We will attempt to categorize attestations in terms of their relationship to blockchain systems and give some use cases for the different categories of attestations.

We assume that there is a system of decentralized identifiers and a reliable mapping from an identifier to its corresponding signing key. This mapping would most likely be done using a blockchain, but one could potentially use a Certificate Authority for the mapping.

Pure Offchain (manual sharing/issuing, Verifiable Claims)

These attestations are held by the user locally off-chain without a hash on chain and is shared manually with others when directly initiated by the user. They can consist of JSON Web Tokens and/or Verifiable Claims, i.e. they consist of data (normally JSON data) with an associated digital signature.

A user can send an attestation to a service by including it in a simple HTTP request.

The receiver of an attestation would validate it by getting the identifier in the claim data, mapping it to the corresponding public key (using blockchain or CA) and finally verifying that this public key signed the attestation.

The simplest way of dealing with revocation is to have the attestation be time-limited. If the expiry timestamp in the validation is in the past the attestation is considered invalid. Also revocation of keys is then automatic: when looking up the public signing key corresponding to the identifier, the attestation is only considered valid if the key is the current one.

This is quite a strict requirement though, one could imagine accepting an attestation by an old key as long as the timestamp is consistent. However this can be hard to verify since an attacker who steals an old key can also modify the timestamp. It might also be a pain to have all the attestations made by the user be invalidated when they lose or update their device (and hence their key). However if most attestations are issued by corporations the key loss may be less of an issue.

For examples of use cases, see

Offchain with hash on-chain (persistent access)

In this model the attestations are stored in JSON format (normally in a decentralized system like IPFS, but can also be a traditional storage service like Dropbox) and a hash of the JSON structure is stored on the blockchain associated to the identifier (e.g. through an on-chain registry). This allows persistent access to the data by anyone, and cryptographically ties it to the identifier of the identity associated with the attestation (mainly the subject of the attestation but could also be the issuer potentially). This kind of attestation is good for profile data of an identity that has been attested to in a web-of-trust fashion.

If the data is meant to be public then this is a good way of distributing it, and cryptographically tie it to an identifier. If the data is meant to be private then it needs to be encrypted. The data can be encrypted in a way that only selected identities can decrypt it, this is sometimes referred to as "selective disclosure".

We can have these attestations stored in a data structure in IPFS so that a single hash encompasses all attestations and their history. It may then be possible to go back in time to check the blockchain timestamp on each specific attestation, even though at any point in time only one hash is on chain.

Examples: uPort, Blockstack

On-chain (smart contract based) attestations

This type of attestation exists in a smart contract on a blockchain. This could be for instance in an access-controlled registry which maps a key or identifier to the attestation data. The downside of this approach is that there is a large cost in storing data on a blockchain and it also requires a blockchain node to validate the attestation, instead of just checking a digital signature.

The upside is that these attestations can be used by other smart contracts. An example of this is a smart contract issuing and selling shares in a company. The company may require that buyers of shares have performed a KYC check. A KYC provider can issue an on-chain attestation stating that a particular identifier has gone through this KYC check, without necessarily revealing any more personal information on the blockchain. The smart contract issuing the shares can then automatically verify that the users of the smart contract fulfill the requirements and hence are able to buy shares.

Example: Proof Of Physical Address

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