Studying the Adoption of Self-sovereign Identity — Part 1

As with many, the 2016 election left me feeling bewildered about the effects of the web on society. As someone who’s been working on the web for nearly her entire career, I wanted to improve my understanding of online human behavior and trust to contribute more responsible technology. In 2017, I started working on a Ph.D. in Media Psychology at Fielding Graduate University and am currently working on my dissertation that studies the adoption of self-sovereign identity. In many respects, this aligns with the work I’ve been doing for the last decade in ed tech and Open Badges.

Self-sovereign identity and decentralized identity are emerging to be underlying elements of the technology stack being evaluated and piloted for use in education and workforce credentials. Initiatives are evaluating how self-sovereign identity can be used for student ids and library ids. The technologies are also applicable to education records, credentials, and CVs.

Throughout our lifetimes, we learn, and learning, no matter where or how it happens, is invaluable personal currency, often resulting in data that we should have access to and the ability to use and control for our entire lives. Open Badges is a type of digital credential created to address this by recognizing learning and achievements that happen anywhere at any time. The initiative launched in 2011 to recognize informal learning experiences such as coding boot camps, writing competitions, after school programs, libraries, employment training, etc. The aim is to increase social equitability by providing individuals with proof of their skills and knowledge so that employment and education opportunities can be accessible to qualified individuals even if they don’t have formal credentials like college degrees¹. Later, formal education institutions did get involved in Open Badges too.

As both a philosophy and a technology with a data specification and proposed architecture, Open Badges have a set of metadata properties packaged to describe who earned a badge, why it was issued, who issued it, and what criteria were met to earn it. Those seeking to verify a badge, such as schools or employers, confirm the badge’s integrity by accessing its metadata on the issuing organization’s platform. Issuers may also cryptographically sign the metadata with the proof of the signature hosted by them or the platform they are using.

The philosophy of Open Badges intends to give control of the credentials to the earners who should be able to curate and manage who accesses the credentials, but the technology of Open Badges actually places the trustworthiness of the credentials and the agency of the data in the hands of the issuer, not the earner. For example, should the issuer no longer be reachable, identifiable, or the metadata isn’t accessible, the badge’s verifiability can be questioned, leaving the earner with no way to prove their achievements autonomously. This counteracts the philosophy of Open Badges because the technology can’t support the badge’s values as personal currency. If issuers have control of the data, then they determine the value, not the earners.

Our personal data created offline and online are collected and controlled by many entities, including governments, educational institutions, healthcare providers, and online and mobile platforms. We don’t exactly know what data exists, who has it, how accurate it is, or how it is being used. If we need this data, we need to request it, often wait for it, and sometimes pay for it. Even though it is about us, it doesn’t belong to us, and we have no control over it.

Self-sovereign identity, like Open Badges, is a philosophy and technology that can change this. Some of the earliest members of the Open Badges community participated in the Credentials Community Group² at the W3C and contributed towards the use cases and technology properties that make it work. Verifiable Credentials³, a technology standard that can implement self-sovereign identity solutions, can be used for badges, degrees, passports, driver’s licenses, and any aspect of personal identity data that requires confirmation.

Establishing a more secure online identity is critical for just about anything we do online. Self-sovereign identity technology can enable us to have agency over our personal data and how we represent ourselves online. Over the past few years, work on this has been accelerating in education and more broadly, including banking, healthcare, and identity providers.

My dissertation studies the factors that can influence the adoption of self-sovereign identity enabled apps. It will use the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT) framework to explore how mental models such as usernames/passwords and federated logins affect performance expectancy and effort expectancy, the role of digital self-efficacy, and expectations of privacy and autonomy. The hope is that this research will provide insight into what matters to individuals regarding their online identities and help support human-centered design and engineering.

As I continue to work on my dissertation proposal, I’ll aim to write more here as an exercise to help clarify and communicate my thinking. It helps to have a less formal and academic setting to explore complex concepts. In the next post, I’ll explain more about self-sovereign identity principles and how the technology works. Later, I’ll get into technology adoption theories and why and how I plan to use the UTAUT as part of my research methodology.

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[1] Open Badges for Lifelong Learning

[2] W3C Credentials Community Group

[3] W3C Verifiable Credentials Working Group


Internet Identity & Technology Adoption Research/Development, Education Verifiable Credentials Solutions Architect, Co-chair W3C VC-EDU

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Kerri Lemoie, PhD

Internet Identity & Technology Adoption Research/Development, Education Verifiable Credentials Solutions Architect, Co-chair W3C VC-EDU