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For Digital Identity Management, Startup Offers Blockchain

Two people who worked on Illinois' project to vet blockchain for government uses have started their own company, aimed at solving the fundamental problem they kept running into in government: identity management.

After struggling to put blockchain to use in Illinois, two former state employees are privately developing a way to use the technology for digital identity management on a national scale, and they’ve partnered with Deloitte, one of the “Big Four” accounting firms, to do it.

Attest Inc., co-founded in March by Illinois’ former director of blockchain strategy Cab Morris and former deputy director of entrepreneurship Jennifer O’Rourke, announced the partnership Nov. 6. Their ultimate goal is to bring the equivalent of a digital wallet to the government market — a tool to make it quicker and easier for citizens to prove who they are when they’re at the DMV, banking, traveling, voting, applying for government benefits or doing anything else that requires ID. If Attest succeeds, future innovations that depend on digital IDs could become more viable for their government clients.

A news release from Deloitte said Attest is working on two products: Attest Wallet, a consumer application for sharing verified personal data with governments and businesses; and Attest Enterprise, a pair of APIs for those governments and businesses to interface with users trying to authenticate and manage their identifying information.

Morris said Attest is the result of months of work informed by his and O’Rourke’s experiences in government, added to a platform developed over five-plus years of research and development by engineers from Digital Bazaar, a Virginia-based innovator of online payment, identity and credential technologies. He said Deloitte’s role will be helping them bring Attest’s wallet and APIs to market.

O’Rourke recalled that during their time working for Illinois, she and Morris had tried to implement blockchain in a handful of record-keeping services: land title records, academic credentials, health provider registry, energy credit marketplaces and vital records. But the complexities of identity management, of who owns verifiable credentials and how they can be relayed between different departments, was an obstacle every time.

O’Rourke said she realized any solution would need to be accessible between departments and states, able to interact with anyone from Illinois to California to Indiana or New York.

“If we didn’t solve for identity as a foundational layer that these distinct use cases, like land-title registry or health-provider registry, would sit atop of, we’d essentially run the risk of building digital islands instead of government departmental islands,” she said. “The theme of both of these challenges truly was portability and interoperability.”

Morris said one of the values of this tool is that users don’t have to rely on another party to “attest” on their behalf in order to access the ledger of personal information saved on the blockchain. It gives the user more control over their information.

He pointed out that one of the challenges that follows from this is that not everyone can manage their own digital key — some don’t want to, and some, like kids, legally can’t. And others might not have a smartphone on which to store a key. This necessitates building a user experience for all levels of technical ability.

“We do have a finished product, a finished beta, that we’re running in proof-of-concepts and smaller-scale pilots,” Morris said. “Starting the beginning of next year, we’ll have a full production-ready system for any client to spin off and use immediately.”

After these pilots with private and public partners, Morris said, Attest plans to get its digital wallet into the hands of more end-users in 2019. Later next year, he hopes to launch a software-as-a-service to help governments quickly sort out which APIs can connect with the wallet.

Attest is not the first to explore the concept of blockchain identity management — Morris named Sovrin and Uport as industry peers — but it works with them on a day-to-day basis, both to build on their innovations and to avoid their share of the market.

“Interoperability is so critical to building a foundation for these protocols … because it’s in our best interests and the best interests of our customers and anyone who uses these technologies,” he said.

Morris noted that blockchain innovators sometimes get ahead of themselves talking about what is possible as opposed to imminent, so he expects the next several months to entail more work than announcements.

“We’ll be pretty quiet from here on out until we can show that people are using this in a meaningful way,” he said. “We want to show how people are using it rather than saying how they could.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.