Glimpsing backward and forward, Fox World Travel chief information officer Sam Hilgendorf offers a primer on how self-sovereign identification works and a description of how it will impact business travel.
When was the last time you felt in full control of your identity and personal information?
For me, it was around 1997. I had my driver’s license, my Social Security card, my passport and my Blockbuster membership card. They were either in my wallet or safely stored in the sock drawer of my dresser. In those days, I did not know what an eBay or a Facebook was, or that in a few years I would willingly give them details of my identity without a second thought.
With all the uses that have emerged for the Internet, I have systematically lost control of my identity. I started to review the retail websites where I created accounts; I counted 50 when I gave up. As a frequent business traveler, I have identity data in the form of profiles stored with suppliers, booking tools, review sites and more. These companies know even more about me than the typical retailer, as they have copies of my passport number and driver’s license, and even know when I am away from home.
An emerging technology called self-sovereign identification (SSI) is meant to solve this problem. It also will change how we plan and purchase travel.
What Is Self-Sovereign Identification?
Self-sovereign identification sounds like an abstract and complex concept, but it simply means I take ownership and control over my digital identity. With SSI, my profile data stays only with me. It is no longer managed or disseminated by the companies I work with.
SSI is based on three fundamental pillars that make it work: verifiable credentials, decentralized identifiers and the distributed ledger capabilities of blockchain.
Verifiable credentials. Think of these as digital copies of the physical credentials you use daily, stored in a digital wallet application, much like storing a credit card on your phone.
Decentralized identifiers. These allow the sharing of your verifiable credentials with another party. It is like creating a unique digital “phone number” that someone can call to validate the credential. Decentralized identifiers can be used for something publicly available, like confirming your age to buy certain products in a store. They also can be made private for banking or other confidential needs. The decentralized identifier doesn’t contain any personal data. It is simply a verification check that the credential is applicable and valid.
Distributed ledger technology (blockchain). This is the universal “phone book” that stores all decentralized identifiers. A public blockchain creates a record of data that can never be changed or deleted. Because it is always available, it is perfect for storing the decentralized identifiers, which must be available each time they need to be verified.
Traveling Like It’s 2027
By 2027, it is likely that government and corporate entities will widely adopt SSI. This is what my travel experience to a business conference could potentially look like:
Planning And Booking
As I plan to travel for a conference in Orlando, I go to my online booking tool and instead of logging in with a username and password, I confirm my identity with a digital wallet application on my computer or smartphone. This digital wallet is the tool I now use to log in to all websites, my email, Instagram, other mobile apps, etc. I no longer have an account profile on each site or app. To access my digital wallet, I use my thumbprint and a PIN, securing it only to me.
My frequent flyer number, TSA known-traveler number and supplier preferences are all verified from my digital wallet, eliminating the need to double-check them at each step in the journey. My loyalty entitlements are also verified, ensuring I receive my correct upgrades and amenities.
For the conference booking, I no longer create an account on the conference website or use my Facebook or Google accounts to log in. I use the same digital wallet to confirm my identity without sharing any detailed information.
Since digital wallet technology is now universally accepted, I also receive and store a virtual payment card tied to each pre-planned segment, and one for incidentals. These are stored in my digital wallet with my credentials.
As I start my journey to Orlando, I arrive at the airport. I only use the digital wallet on my smartphone at security. My travel documents are confirmed and unified into a scannable QR code.
A TSA agent scans the QR code and directs me to use a biometric face scanner. The agent no longer looks at an ID picture to compare it to my face; the biometric face scan is compared to my digital credential, the agent receives a green light indicating a match and I am permitted through. The TSA agent never needed to see my awful driver’s license photo.
At the gate, I no longer provide a boarding pass. I scan the same QR code within my digital wallet that I used at security.
Upon landing, I book a ride. Prior to getting into the car, the driver scans my digital wallet verifying it is me and my rideshare app confirms this is my car and driver.
Arriving at the hotel, I use the digital wallet to confirm my identity, and with the virtual payment solution connected to my identity and hotel, I check in at a kiosk without waiting for a front desk agent. The kiosk presents me with a room that my digital wallet will unlock during my stay.
During an evening event at Universal Studios, I lose my smartphone. I really shouldn’t have taken it on the Hulk rollercoaster. I immediately cringe at the memories of losing my physical wallet, canceling credit cards, getting a new driver’s license, etc.
Fortunately, the mobile wallet regularly backs up the data within it. I just need a new device to access it.
Once back at the hotel, I explain the situation to the front desk staff, and they allow me into my room. From my computer, I log into my digital wallet. I then order a new phone.
When the phone arrives the next morning, I restore my digital wallet from the cloud backup. Once again, I use my PIN, but also have an email verification sent that I retrieve from my laptop. Once the digital wallet is restored, I resume my journey.
After-Travel Expense Report
This is the shortest part of my travel experience. In fact, I don’t spend any time on it. Since I used my digital wallet and virtual payments throughout the entire trip, I eliminated the need to complete an expense report. The expenses on the virtual payment cards link with my identity. My finance department already has a reconciliation for the purpose of the trip, my payments and the relevant cost center.
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Self-sovereign identity will be a game-changer for the travel experience; it is just a matter of when it is fully adopted. The potential impacts SSI will make at each step of the journey are exciting. I hope that once again I can put all my physical documents back into the sock drawer of my dresser and feel like my identity is as secure as it was in 1997.