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Owned vs. Unowned Claims and Self-Sovereign Identity

Natalie Smolenski Cultural Anthropologist and Business Development Learning Machine

When Christopher Allen presented ten principles of self-sovereign identity for community discussion, he listed “Control” as the second principle. He described it as follows:

Control. Users must control their identities. Subject to well-understood and secure algorithms that ensure the continued validity of an identity and its claims, the user is the ultimate authority on their identity. They should always be able to refer to it, update it, or even hide it. They must be able to choose celebrity or privacy as they prefer. This doesn’t mean that a user controls all of the claims on their identity: other users may make claims about a user, but they should not be central to the identity itself. The distinction here between owned and unowned claims is important, and how they are both managed will be key to functional implementations of self-sovereign identity.

The term “self-sovereign” has been catching on as of late, and has been used to describe instances of digital identity (government-controlled digital passports, the internet of things) which are clearly not self-sovereign. This confusion stems in part from difficulties individuals have understanding the difference between claim ownership vs. claim sharing and verification. Yet this distinction is one on which the future of individual privacy and autonomy depends.

Claims made about individuals by other parties already proliferate and will continue to proliferate with blockchain technologies as well. Yet as the pseudonymous transactional structure of chains becomes increasingly tied to digital identities, the danger is that the blockchain could become the infrastructure for a regime of control unprecedented in human history. There is no reason, in principle, why individuals could not become objects in a giant supply chain, tracked like commodities as they move and transact around the world. Participating in this tracking could become the precondition for access to all forms of tokenized resources—including government currencies, utilities, financial services, the ability to make purchases within certain jurisdictions, and basic rights and privileges.

In short, what began as the best attempt to date to preclude the momentous expansion of surveillance capitalism could end up becoming its apotheosis if we do not address early on the individual ability to manage not only claims about themselves that they own but claims they do not own. Obviously the two cases entail different sets of considerations, and this is why I suggest beginning discussion about them now.


Christopher Allen, “The Path to Self-Sovereign Identity.” Life with Alacrity. April 26, 2016.

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