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Identity and Personhood in Digital Democracy: Evaluating Inclusion, Equality, Security, and Privacy in Pseudonym Parties and Other Proofs of Personhood

Bryan Ford
November 2020 (first draft)

arXiv preprint


Digital identity seems at first like a prerequisite for digital democracy: how can we ensure “one person, one vote” online without identifying voters? But the full gamut of digital identity solutions – e.g., online ID checking, biometrics, self-sovereign identity, and social/trust networks – all present severe flaws in security, privacy, and transparency, leaving users vulnerable to exclusion, identity loss or theft, and coercion. These flaws may be insurmountable because digital identity is a cart pulling the horse. We cannot achieve digital identity secure enough to support the weight of digital democracy, until we can build it on a solid foundation of digital personhood meeting key requirements. While identity is about distinguishing one person from another through attributes or affiliations, personhood is about giving all real people inalienable digital participation rights independent of identity, including protection against erosion of their democratic rights through identity loss, theft, coercion, or fakery.

We explore and analyze alternative approaches to proof of personhood that might provide this missing foundation. Pseudonym parties marry the transparency of periodic physical-world roll-call events with the convenience of digital tokens between events. These tokens represent limited-term but renewable digital personhood claims, usable for purposes such as online voting or liquid democracy, sampled juries or deliberative polls, abuse-resistant social communication, or minting universal basic income in a permissionless cryptocurrency. Enhancing pseudonym parties to provide participants a moment of enforced physical security and privacy can address the coercion and vote-buying risks that plague today's E-voting and postal voting systems alike. We also examine other recently-proposed approaches to proof of personhood, some of which offer conveniences such as all-online participation. These alternatives currently fall short of satisfying all the key digital personhood goals, unfortunately, but offer valuable insights into the challenges we face.

Preprint: PDF

Topics: Democracy Identity Personhood Security Privacy Rights Social Networks Transparency Voting Bryan Ford