A Framework for Identity: part 1


Dan Elitzer is a member of the IDEO coLAB, a shared platform to discover and act on the potential of new technologies, with current focuses on blockchain, digital identity, and IoT.

In this op-ed, Elitzer fleshes out a framework for how a digital identity system should function based on work performed by the IDEO coLAB team.

How do you identify yourself? Is it your name? Your email address? Phone number? Drivers license? Facebook account?

Last summer, IDEO coLAB brought together 25 students from top Boston-area universities — including Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and RISD — to design venture prototypes exploring the future of trust, transactions, and reputation. Before the program, I hadn’t given much thought to the concept of “identity” or identity systems. But abstract concepts start to take shape and become more tangible when you run into them repeatedly. Over and over throughout the summer, we saw teams wrestle with identity-related challenges as they designed their ventures:

  • When you’re distributing digital tokens representing voting rights for community projects, how do you ensure there’s a real person behind each account?
  • How can a university issue digital diplomas that graduates can prove are authentic and belong to them?
  • In the event of an emergency, is there a way to automatically give doctors access to your relevant medical history, while keeping it secure and private at other times?

You can probably think of some fairly straightforward answers to those questions. But when you go to implement them, you quickly find that the solution either makes fraud trivial or introduces a level of friction that users won’t tolerate.

  • • •

Our exploration of digital identity continued into the fall, and in October IDEO coLAB and the MIT Digital Currency Initiative co-hosted a workshop. Students and professionals collaboratively explored how blockchain technology might play a role in solving identity-related challenges in the financial services and health care industries.

To help guide discussion at the workshop, we developed a simple framework of the core functions of an identity system. During a concurrent project, the IDEO coLAB team made a few iterations. It’s not perfect, but we’ve found it useful for organizing our thinking and analyzing where blockchains and other emerging technology might be applicable:


Whether it’s the US government assigning Social Security Numbers or Google letting you select an email address, there needs to be a way to create new identities and assign identifiers.

Identities need to be created or issued.



Identity data needs to be stored somewhere. Usually this is a private database with administrator-controlled access, but technologies like IPFS and Blockstack are examples of new models for data storage and retrieval.


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