Interview: Alex Edelstein @ uPort

In a recent edition of the Ether Review, Polychain Capital’s Olaf Carlson-Wee very eloquently summarised his vision of where he sees the blockchain space heading;

“Right now we’re in this stage of actually compartmentalising each of those low levels of the internet stack and building the Web 3.0 or decentralized version. So, exciting projects like IPFS, MetaMask or uPort are kind of building the slice of that centralized web in the Ethereum blockchain/smart contract/Web 3.0 environment.

“Once that stack is robust and easy to use for a normal application developer, then we are going to see a massive proliferation of protocols that actually compete with centralized companies.”

One of the most fundamental aspects of this exciting decentralized future is identity – and that is where uPort comes in. I recently caught up with Alex Edelstein, Marketing Manager at uPort to find out more…

What is your background and how did you first become involved in the blockchain space?

AE: Our team has a diverse background spanning entrepreneurship, distributed systems, various software technologies, identity, politics, finance, consulting, and academia. We feel this diversity of experience strengthens our perspective. We work on uPort, which is a company currently being incubated at ConsenSys, the largest Ethereum venture production studio, which was founded by Joseph Lubin, who also co-founded Ethereum.

uPort is described as an, “open source software project to establish a global, unified, sovereign identity system for people, businesses, organizations, devices, and bots”. Firstly, could you explain exactly what you mean by the phrase ‘sovereign identity’ or ‘self-sovereign identity’?

AE: Currently, identity exists as a provider-subject relationship between centralized identity issuers and individual identity recipients. Individuals’ identities are controlled by governments and corporate entities in centralized silos, storing the attributes of that identity and managing them isolated from one another and, more importantly, out of the individual’s control. This means that not only is this separate entity responsible for securing the private contents of your identity, but they also have the opportunity to distribute and monetize that information as they see fit.

Our vision for a self-sovereign identity gives the individual persistent and portable ownership over the contents and management of their own identity. With uPort, each individual will be able to aggregate their own existing, fragmented digital identity into a single source that can be used to authenticate attributes of their identity everywhere. From government IDs to social networks to IoT devices, individuals can build and make use of their own identity anywhere, on their terms.

Secondly, could you perhaps break down that description of uPort by running through what products you are planning to offer and how they would work for each respective audience?

AE: The uPort platform features a number of key products that work together to create a viable, global self-sovereign identity system that works for individuals, developers, business partners, enterprises, and governments:

uPort Mobile App – The uPort Mobile App allows users to create their identities, send and receive credentials, authenticate, and sign transactions.

uPort Connect – A complete onboarding and user management solution for developers, offering end-to-end support from open source libraries to a login button. It’s like Facebook Connect, without the Facebook.

uPort ContractsuPort smart contracts, deployed on the Ethereum blockchain, form the decentralized backbone of the uPort identity network. Each smart contract represents a uPort identity. Since they’re on the decentralized Ethereum ledger, they exist outside the centralized authority of any institution and belong solely to the user.

AppManager – A web application for businesses and developers to create and manage their uPort identity.

uPort CredentialsComplete user credential service that enables businesses and developers to provide users with signed and authenticated data.

uPort InfrastructureEthereum, and Web 3.0, is very new technology. We have built significant technical infrastructure that makes using uPort easy and seamless for end users, which ultimately makes dApps more accessible to a wider, non-technical audience.

What do you see as the main issues with the current digital identity systems and how do blockchains specifically solve some of these problems? In addition to that, can uPort be used off-chain and if so, how?

The current digital identity landscape fails to achieve true self-sovereignty because providers maintain a centralized management of the individual’s identity. Blockchain technology, when incorporated into the right scalable vision, can, for the first time, empower the individual with ownership over the management of their identity and how it is used. Practically speaking though, decentralized digital identity has existed since PGP. However, PGP failed to achieve widespread adoption because users are notoriously bad at managing passwords, let alone cryptographic keys. Ethereum smart contracts can be programmed to solve many of these issues required for mainstream adoption.

With uPort, identities are on-chain smart contracts, but data attributes about that identity can be stored on-chain or off-chain. We call the on-chain data variety ‘Badges’, which are essentially true/false statements about an identity that are publicly available for all to see. Simultaneously, uPort identities can be securely linked to off-chain data stores via mappings in a registry contract. This enables greater privacy and scalability, while lowering costs. Users can manage these data files themselves, or permission others to read and write files on their behalf.

What do you see as the primary use cases for uPort?

For individuals, uPort provides the opportunity for a truly self-sovereign identity — an individually developed, owned, and managed identity that they can securely use anywhere in the world. Rather than fragmenting aspects of their digital identities across siloed providers, individuals can securely manage and distribute the data associated with their identity (think government credentials, credit score information, social profiles, IoT devices, etc.).

For enterprises, uPort offers improved KYC processes, while removing the cost and liability of having to securely manage and store customer information. Additionally, enterprises can quickly onboard new customers and employees without usernames, passwords, or forms, they can easily build secure access-controlled environments for employees, increase compliance, and establish role-specific identities (i.e. CTO) with explicit permissions.

I’ve read that Ethereum smart contracts can help solve the problem of cryptographic key management – is that one of the main reasons why uPort is built on the Ethereum blockchain?

Absolutely. Ethereum makes self-sovereign identity viable for many reasons.

Who else is currently part of the uPort team?

uPort is a globally distributed team of 12 core members, but we have many more open source contributors. The core team consists of engineers, product managers, marketers, and business developers. We’re also hiring.

What does the road map look like for the next 12-18 months?

We have many exciting plans for the next year and beyond, but we’re particularly focused on launching on the public Ethereum mainnet in Q3 of this year. We will continue improving many aspects of our platform as we approach that date. At the moment, we’re working on supporting multiple Ethereum networks, which allows the uPort system to be used on public Ethereum mainnet, Ethereum test networks, and private/consortium Ethereum networks.
Follow uPort on Twitter
uPort’s GitHub


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