Real World Words for SSI and Credential Adoption

Martin Reed
4 min readAug 24, 2021

The world operates with agency and believability not, trust and ownership

“I own my information.”

The Self Sovereign Identity (SSI) community at large, uses “ownership” often. Credentials are described as a type of currency ownable by the holder.

In practice, the concept of ownership is more malleable. For example, imagine car ownership. The driver of the car would say, ‘I own my car.’

If the driver is pulled over for speeding, the license plate is connected to the driver’s address and insurance. The driver is responsible. The driver determines where the car goes, how fast, and when the oil is changed. However, technically the bank owns the title to that car until the loan is paid off.

The driver has agency over the car.

“You need to earn my trust.”

It is universally accepted that trust must be earned rather than simply given. The community uses the trust triangle to demonstrate how trust is created for issuers, holders, verifiers. Is this relationship really trust?

Consider the driver again. The driver has self-sovereignty over their driver’s license. But it can be revoked, or it can reflect old information. Is the government agency who issued the driver’s license trustable? Or have we simply decided that a driver’s license is a believable form of identification. The license shows a picture of the driver, the driver did the work to obtain the license and it isn’t expired. Therefore, the license is believable.

“Who owns my high school transcript?”

The importance of agency and believability is clearly demonstrated in the lifecycle of a verifiable credential. Currently, a high school transcript must be requested from the institution or the state with instructions about where that transcript should be sent. The high school sends the transcript directly to the higher education institution so it can be trusted. The student did the learning, but the school, district, or state owns the evidence of that learning. The words printed on a transcript are not what makes it believable. Special paper, the raised seal, and an inked signature are all components that make the transcript document believable.

If a learner obtains an official transcript printed on the special paper do they own that transcript? No, but now the learner has agency over that specific version of it, and a receiver doesn’t trust the words but rather believes the official symbols.

Agency and believability give credential holders valuable tools. When an individual has their transcript, they have control, or agency, over that document.

It can be torn up, or shared, put in a drawer, or lost. Further, when that transcript is shared the receiver believes the information because they believe the provider of that information. Agency and believability are less incendiary terms that give us considerable flexibility with how these ideas are communicated to the broader community. Ownership and trust may reflect and ideal but cannot be practically applied.

Everyday credential issuers, holders and verifiers will not believe or adopt terms so antithetic to their current experience. We need to change this narrative within the credential ecosystem. A school owns the transcript to help improve practice, inform future teaching, and prove they graduate high performing students. If you owned the transcript, they would not have this important knowledge. Instead, learners need agency over the evidence of their learning. It is important for future learning and employment opportunities. And those credentials are believable because there is no reason for doubt.

Leaning into agency and believability will get the desired result for SSI and verifiable credentials — adoption.

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