Aries RFC 0005: DID Communication
- Authors: Daniel Hardman
- Status: ACCEPTED
- Since: 2019-11-21
- Status Note: Mature as concept, with multiple implementations.
- Supersedes: Indy PR #98
- Start Date: 2018-01-05 (approx, backdated)
- Tags: concept
Explain the basics of DID communication (DIDComm) at a high level, and link to other RFCs to promote deeper exploration.
NOTE: The version of DIDComm collectively defined in Aries RFCs is known by the label "DIDComm V1." A newer version of DIDComm ("DIDComm V2") is now being incubated at DIF. Many concepts are the same between the two versions, but there are some differences in the details. For information about detecting V1 versus V2, see Detecting DIDComm Versions.
The DID communication between agents and agent-like things is a rich subject with a lot of tribal knowledge. Newcomers to the decentralized identity ecosystem tend to bring mental models that are subtly divergent from its paradigm. When they encounter dissonance, DIDComm becomes mysterious. We need a standard high-level reference.
This discussion assumes that you have a reasonable grasp on topics like self-sovereign identity, DIDs and DID docs, and agents. If you find yourself lost, please review that material for background and starting assumptions.
Agent-like things have to interact with one another to get work done. How they talk in general is DIDComm, the subject of this RFC. The specific interactions enabled by DIDComm--connecting and maintaining relationships, issuing credentials, providing proof, etc.--are called protocols; they are described elsewhere.
A typical DIDComm interaction works like this:
Imagine Alice wants to negotiate with Bob to sell something online, and that DIDComm, not direct human communication, is involved. This means Alice's agent and Bob's agent are going to exchange a series of messages.
Alice may just press a button and be unaware of details, but underneath, her agent begins by preparing a plaintext JSON message about the proposed sale. (The particulars are irrelevant here, but would be described in the spec for a "sell something" protocol.) It then looks up Bob's DID Doc to access two key pieces of information:
- An endpoint (web, email, etc) where messages can be delivered to Bob.
- The public key that Bob's agent is using in the Alice:Bob relationship.
Now Alice's agent uses Bob's public key to encrypt the plaintext so that only Bob's agent can read it, adding authentication with its own private key. The agent arranges delivery to Bob. This "arranging" can involve various hops and intermediaries. It can be complex.
Bob's agent eventually receives and decrypts the message, authenticating its origin as Alice using her public key. It prepares its response and routes it back using a reciprocal process (plaintext -> lookup endpoint and public key for Alice -> encrypt with authentication -> arrange delivery).
Well, mostly. The description is pretty good, if you squint, but it does not fit all DIDComm interactions:
- DIDComm doesn't always involve turn-taking and request-response.
- DIDComm interactions can involve more than 2 parties, and the parties are not always individuals.
- DIDComm may include formats other than JSON.
Before we provide more details, let's explore what drives the design of DIDComm.
Goals and Ramifications
The DIDComm design attempts to be:
As a list of buzz words, this may elicit nods rather than surprise. However, several items have deep ramifications.
Taken together, Secure and Private require that the protocol be decentralized and maximally opaque to the surveillance economy.
Interoperable means that DIDComm should work across programming languages, blockchains, vendors, OS/platforms, networks, legal jurisdictions, geos, cryptographies, and hardware--as well as across time. That's quite a list. It means that DIDComm intends something more than just compatibility within Aries; it aims to be a future-proof lingua franca of all self-sovereign interactions.
Transport-agnostic means that it should be possible to use DIDComm over HTTP(S) 1.x and 2.0, WebSockets, IRC, Bluetooth, AMQP, NFC, Signal, email, push notifications to mobile devices, Ham radio, multicast, snail mail, carrier pigeon, and more.
All software design involves tradeoffs. These goals, prioritized as shown, lead down an interesting path.
Message-Based, Asynchronous, and Simplex
The dominant paradigm in mobile and web development today is duplex request-response. You call an API with certain inputs, and you get back a response with certain outputs over the same channel, shortly thereafter. This is the world of OpenAPI (Swagger), and it has many virtues.
Unfortunately, many agents are not good analogs to web servers. They may be mobile devices that turn off at unpredictable intervals and that lack a stable connection to the network. They may need to work peer-to-peer, when the internet is not available. They may need to interact in time frames of hours or days, not with 30-second timeouts. They may not listen over the same channel that they use to talk.
Because of this, the fundamental paradigm for DIDComm is message-based, asynchronous, and simplex. Agent X sends a message over channel A. Sometime later, it may receive a response from Agent Y over channel B. This is much closer to an email paradigm than a web paradigm.
On top of this foundation, it is possible to build elegant, synchronous request-response interactions. All of us have interacted with a friend who's emailing or texting us in near-realtime. However, interoperability begins with a least-common-denominator assumption that's simpler.
Message-Level Security, Reciprocal Authentication
The security and privacy goals, and the asynchronous+simplex design decision, break familiar web assumptions in another way. Servers are commonly run by institutions, and we authenticate them with certificates. People and things are usually authenticated to servers by some sort of login process quite different from certificates, and this authentication is cached in a session object that expires. Furthermore, web security is provided at the transport level (TLS); it is not an independent attribute of the messages themselves.
In a partially disconnected world where a comm channel is not assumed to support duplex request-response, and where the security can't be ignored as a transport problem, traditional TLS, login, and expiring sessions are impractical. Furthermore, centralized servers and certificate authorities perpetuate a power and UX imbalance between servers and clients that doesn't fit with the peer-oriented DIDComm.
DIDComm uses public key cryptography, not certificates from some parties and passwords from others. Its security guarantees are independent of the transport over which it flows. It is sessionless (though sessions can easily be built atop it). When authentication is required, all parties do it the same way.
The following RFCs profide additional information:
- 0021: DIDComm Message Anatomy
- 0020: Message Types
- 0011: Decorators
- 0008: Message ID and Threading
- 0019: Encryption Envelope
- 0025: Agent Transports
The following lists the implementations (if any) of this RFC. Please do a pull request to add your implementation. If the implementation is open source, include a link to the repo or to the implementation within the repo. Please be consistent in the "Name" field so that a mechanical processing of the RFCs can generate a list of all RFCs supported by an Aries implementation.
|Name / Link||Implementation Notes|
|Indy Cloud Agent - Python||Reference agent implementation contributed by Sovrin Foundation and Community|
|Aries Framework - .NET||.NET framework for building agents of all types|
|Streetcred.id||Commercial mobile and web app built using Aries Framework - .NET|
|Aries Cloud Agent - Python||Contributed by the government of British Columbia.|
|Aries Static Agent - Python||Useful for cron jobs and other simple, automated use cases.|
|Aries Framework - Go||For building agents, hubs and other DIDComm features in GoLang.|
|Connect.Me||Free mobile app from Evernym. Installed via app store on iOS and Android.|
|Verity||Commercially licensed enterprise agent, SaaS or on-prem.|
|Aries Protocol Test Suite|
|Pico Labs||Pico Agents protocols: connections, trust_ping, basicmessage, routing|