Attest co-founders Cab Morris and Jennifer O’Rourke at their Chicago Loop offices in November 2018Brett Scarola
Cab Morris and Jennifer O’Rourke have been working for two years to give their fellow United States citizens—and Facebook users—more control over their personal information. Starting with their previous day-jobs at the state of Illinois, the duo first began to explore how decentralized technology like that which powers bitcoin could help make that possible.
Morris, the state’s former director of blockchain strategy, and O’Rourke, the state’s former deputy director of entrepreneurship worked together on five early stage blockchain efforts for Illinois, including the potential use of blockchain as a more transparent way to issue deeds for state property, and a way to increase state citizens’ access and control over their own healthcare records.
But time and again, one thing got in the way of modernizing the way the state deals with industries far beyond just real estate and healthcare: how the state’s citizens prove who they are at every step of the way, from basic logins using Facebook, to more sophisticated forms of identity, including driver’s licenses, social security cards and more. Who owned the data, how it was controlled, and whether it was honored across borders proved almost insurmountable obstacles.
So, in March 2018, Morris, 27, and O’Rourke, 37, left their government positions to build a private solution called Attest, which they hope will serve more than just Illinois citizens and U.S. citizens, but citizens around the world. Now, after eight months of quietly toiling away Attest is announcing its first major partnership, with Deloitte, and a potential integration into one of the Big Four accounting firm’s existing end-to-end solutions.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a replacement but a truly digital version of your social security card, your driver’s license, your health records,” says Morris, who is now the chief executive officer of Attest. “But one that allows you to cryptographically authenticate to a variety of different service providers in a way that you would typically with Facebook Connect or Google Sign-in.”
Based in Chicago, Illinois, Attest has so far been bootstrapped by Morris and O’Rourke. After incubating the company within a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) working group, the pair formed a technical partnership with web 3.0 solutions platform Digital Bazaar to build out the government identity solution. Currently, Attest is working to build two products.
The first product is cryptographically secured identity storage similar to the wallets bitcoin owners use to store their cryptocurrency. Instead of cryptocurrency though, the Attest wallet will let users store digital versions of a wide range of government and corporate IDs in a single place. Unlike current government IDs that show everyone the citizen’s address, even if they only need to view the age, Attest wallets are being designed to let users control who sees what, and how it is monetized, if at all.
Currently, ways to prove identity via a central authority result in a number of weaknesses. Driver’s licenses and social security cards rely on paper and plastic solutions that are easier to forge than cryptographic signatures. Corporate solutions like Facebook are increasingly being questioned for the way they monetize their users’ data, and credit agencies like Equifax create what is called a “honey pot” of data that has already lured successful hackers.
By moving identity data behind individual wallets tracked on a distributed ledger those honey pots could be decentralized, as a hacker would have to break into each wallet individually. “In some sense the economics of cyber risk start to shift a little bit because with blockchain,” says Morris, “it’s a bit more distributed, and it’s encrypted on a per-user basis.”
A second product called Attest Enterprise will consist of two application programming interfaces (APIs) that give users the ability authenticate who they are, authorize third parties and give consent for others to manage their identities on their behalf, if they so choose. “We are trying to provide consumers with as many tools to manage that on their own as possible,” says Morris. “But also understand that there’s certain portions of the population that are not going to be able manage that key as easily.”
While Morris and O’Rourke provide inside government expertise on the bureaucratic and logistic hurdles around building a decentralized identity, they’re relying largely on Digital Bazaar’s technical work to integrate two main open standards into Attest’s identity solution. Only part of the final product is expected to employ blockchain technology, and the actual blockchain platform has yet to be determined.
Specifically, Attest and Digital Bazaar’s team of eight employees are building the identity platform to let governments certify a driver’s license, social security card etc. using a verifiable credentials specification developed in a W3C working group. Other standards Attest president O’Rourke says are crucial to getting blockchain identity right are the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s federal information processing (FIPS) standards, first developed as a Federal standard for information storage, and now widely used by the private sector as well.
Collectively, the two Attest tools are being designed to let a citizen moving to a new state or country for a job simultaneously update his or her deed to property, and the health insurance coverage provided by their new employer, at a single place, for example. “Being able to have one standardized data set that can interoperate between these two very different departments and two very different use cases would be incredibly valuable,” says O’Rourke.
Going forward, Morris and O’Rourke will be working with Deloitte’s managing director of government services and blockchain leader, Wendy Henry to build government compliant identifiers that can be used by the Big Four accounting firm’s clients. But the competition will remain stiff.
In addition to Deloitte launching its own Smart Identity proof of concept in 2016, a number of other blockchain identity solutions are being developed, including by enterprises like IBM and venture backed startups like Civic. In September, Deloitte published a report assessing blockchain applications being explored by the public sector, including intra-governmental transactions, voting, land registrations, supply chain, healthcare and taxation.
But Deloitte’s Henry, calls blockchain identity the “holy grail” her firm has been chasing “for a while and not quite getting there.” If Attest succeeds in it goal, Henry says Deloitte is ready and waiting. “We are looking to integrate them into an end to end solution where they’ll help provide some of the digital identity credentials, that I can’t divulge,” says Henry.