Blockchain for Local Identity?

As soon as I declare that blockchain technology is unsuited for two use cases, Identity and local currency , Wolfie Zhao reports in Coindesk that the Swiss city of Zug is going to have a local ID service using a blockchain.

Oops. These use cases are still open, or at least not as dead as I said.

Of course, there is a difference between a local currency and a local ID service. The former needs to interact with conventional financial systems, the latter needs to interact with conventional ID systems. The press release indicates that digital IDs are not well developed in Switzerland, though I’m sure that digital banking works great.

Similarly, there is a difference between a global ID system, with secure digital passports for everyone including refugees and repressed populations, and a digital ID issued by a city. For that matter, the city is Swiss, which means it already has a well developed national ID system to build on.

So this isn’t quite the use cases I considered earlier.

What it is, is an intersection of them, a simpler problem and a well organized local government. Perhaps this is a favorable “corner” of the use cases, where blockchain will work well.


So far as I can tell, the rationale for this system is that Switzerland has a personal ID system (which I’m sure is quite rigorous and efficient), but digital versions of the IDs have not been successful. Blockchain technology is a way to securely associate a cryptokey with a particular ID. The blockchain is intended to make it possible for digital apps to quickly and cheaply confirm IDs.

Sure. This can work.

We’ll see how well it works. Is there enough need for this sort of crypto ID, and does it work well enough to be useful?   I don’t know, we’ll find out.


I note that blockchain is being used for a tiny part of the problem. As the press release makes clear, citizens must go to a city office to prove their identity and then are issues a digital key. This process is the hard part, and blockchain does nothing to support this service.

We want a single electronic identity – a kind of digital passport – for all possible applications. And we do not want this digital ID to be centralized at the city, but on the blockchain.” (Dolfi Müller, quoted in [2])

It is ironic to see the proponents of this system talk about how this is a “decentralized” solution. What they mean by that is that the part of the process where digital IDs are looked up is “decentralized”, particularly compared to previous systems that have attempted to implement the service with a database.

Essentially, the city doesn’t want to run a database with a secure public interface. Fair enough.

To a certain extent, they are also boasting about the local city’s initiative, too, though IDs issued by one city may have limited use elsewhere. Ethereum runs everywhere, but Zug IDs may not be trusted anywhere outside Zug.

I suspect, though, that Zug is issuing IDs based on Swiss national credentials. In that case, IDs issued in Zug are great throughout Switzerland. These are, of course, centralized IDs in that case.

Looking up IDs is a decentralized problem, but issuing IDs demands trust, and a web of trust between authorities. If every city in Switzerland issues its own crypto IDs, even using the same Federal ID, it will be chaos.


Finally, I have to say, “Ethereum? Really?”

I’m rather surprised that anyone would try to build a trusted system using the catastrophically messed up Ethereum technology. But they probably use Microsoft Windows, too. Massively clever cryptography running on wobbly, hackable software infrastructure.

Anyway, we’ll see how this works out.


  1. Stadtverwaltung Zug. Blockchain-Identität für alle Einwohner. 2017, http://www.stadtzug.ch/de/ueberzug/ueberzugrubrik/aktuelles/aktuellesinformationen/?action=showinfo&info_id=383355.
  2. Wolfie Zhao, Swiss City Announces Plan to Verify IDs Using Ethereum Coindesk.July 7 2017, http://www.coindesk.com/swiss-city-verify-id-ethereum/

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

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