Author: LianGuaiUL VERADITTAKIT, Partner of LianGuaintera, Translation: Deep Tide TechFlow
This article is the second in a series of decentralized social articles written by LianGuaiUL, a partner of LianGuaintera.
This series explores how current technologies and trends solve a series of problems in decentralized social networks, and provides specific explanations and explorations for each problem.
Previous article: The Future of Web3 Social (Part 1): Building Social Graphs to Solve Customer Acquisition Problems
In 2017, a group of researchers from the MIT Media Lab claimed in Wired magazine that decentralized social networks would never succeed. In their article, they listed three impossible challenges:
(1) The problem of attracting (and retaining) users from scratch
(2) The problem of handling user personal information
(3) The problem of user-oriented advertising
They believed that in these three cases, existing tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google, due to their extensive economies of scale, have not left any room for any significant competition.
Now, the once “impossible” seems no longer so out of reach. We seem to be at the dawn of a transformation in the concept of social media networks. In this three-part series (this is part two), we will explore how new ideas in decentralized social media (DeSo) solve these “ancient” problems, including:
(1) Solving the cold start problem with an open social layer
(2) Solving the problem of user identity with proof of personhood and cryptographic technology
(3) Solving the problem of revenue with a token economy model and incentive mechanisms
In this issue, the author mainly discusses the solution to problem 2.
The problem of user identity in social media
Modern social media faces the problem of bots. Although social media platforms have an obligation to maintain freedom of speech, the problem becomes tricky when the “users” involved are actually bots.
It has been proven that bots have a significant impact on public discourse, from being accused of interfering in the US presidential election to influencing public opinion on COVID. Especially when emphasizing anonymity, security, and privacy, any decentralized social media platform inherits the “bot problem” – that is, in the era of advanced AI, how do you convince people that the accounts on your platform are real and not bots?
One naive approach is to adopt traditional KYC protocols, but this approach immediately encounters privacy issues – the other side of the problem. Why should you trust any social media platform to store our sensitive data (from government IDs to private messages and financial transactions), which can reconstruct a person’s entire personal, social, and professional life?
Therefore, the “user identity” problem is essentially a tension between confirming that a user “is indeed a human” and providing privacy guarantees for personal data. In this article, we will explore two different approaches to solving this problem: biometric methods (using zero-knowledge proofs) and social proof methods.
Worldcoin and Biometric Authentication
Worldcoin is one of the most famous and controversial projects in the field of “proof of personhood”. In addition to having OpenAI CEO Sam Altman as one of its supporters, Worldcoin’s solution to the “proof of personhood” problem is very direct: using retinal scans to create biometric proof that you are a human (because robots don’t have retinas) and obtain a certification token from it. As for data privacy, Worldcoin claims to use zero-knowledge proofs to ensure that the obtained biometric data is securely stored.
The argument of Worldcoin is that as artificial intelligence plays an increasingly significant role in society, it is necessary to differentiate between humans and robots in a way that protects privacy and is decentralized. By using the retinal scans of the Worldcoin sphere, people can obtain a World ID similar to a “digital passport,” which enables the holder to potentially participate in a global basic income mechanism based on cryptocurrency and engage in new mechanisms of global democratic governance. Essentially, this World ID is intended to become the social primitive mechanism of future digital social networks.
In its documentation, Worldcoin emphasizes its privacy-first solution. For example, it states that the images collected by the sphere are deleted, and only the hash of the user’s iris is stored, and zero-knowledge proofs (zk-SNARKs) are used to share proof of personhood information without disclosing any personal data. Although in the current launch phase, these hash values are stored in a centralized database, the team is committed to storing these iris hash data on the blockchain once the hash algorithm is fully mature.
However, despite these privacy protection claims, there are still many controversies regarding real privacy, security, and guarantees of fairness. For example, some claim that the credentials of Worldcoin operators have been stolen, and World IDs are being sold on the dark web so that users can obtain Worldcoin tokens without undergoing a retinal scan. And there are also overall fairness issues, with MIT Technology Review publishing a sharp article in April 2022 accusing Worldcoin of deceiving, manipulating, and exploiting nearly 500,000 users (mainly users from developing countries) during the testing phase, even calling it a form of “cryptocolonialism.” In fact, as of August 2, 2023, Kenya, once one of the largest data collection grounds for Worldcoin, has banned Worldcoin’s scans due to security, privacy, and financial concerns.
In addition to these project-specific controversies, there are also broader concerns about Worldcoin’s overall adoption of dedicated hardware for biometric authentication. Because the sphere is essentially a hardware device, even if Worldcoin’s software is flawless, it cannot guarantee that there are no hardware backdoors that allow Worldcoin (or other third-party manufacturers) to secretly collect users’ actual biometric data or insert false personal profiles into the system. For skeptics, all of Worldcoin’s privacy assurances (zero-knowledge proofs, iris hashes, on-chain decentralization) seem to be ironic.
Proof of Humanity and Social Guarantees
Another method to solve the problem of human identity verification is through social guarantees. Essentially, if verified humans Alice, Bob, Charlie, and David all “guarantee” that Emily is a verified human, then it is highly likely that Emily is also a human. The core issue here is therefore a game theory design problem – how do we design incentive mechanisms to “verify humans” to the maximum extent.
Proof of human identity is one of the oldest and most important projects in this field. To “prove your human identity,” you need to:
(1) Submit personal information, photos, and videos, as well as a deposit of 0.125 ETH,
(2) Have humans already registered in the registry vouch for you,
(3) Pass within the “3 challenge periods.” If someone challenges you during this period, the case will be submitted to Kleros decentralized court, and the deposit will be at risk.
In the proof process, users first pair with a verifier through a credential form. After pairing with the verifier, they will have a video call to verify the match between personal information and the real person. Similar to Worldcoin’s paper, the proof of human identity community has long had the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) that would be provided to individuals verified in the human identity registry.
Other projects are also on a similar path, using social graphs to verify people’s identities, including BrightID’s video call verification, where everyone verifies each other, Idena’s ongoing captcha creation and solving game, and Circles’ trust-based circles.
The biggest appeal of these social verification-based platforms may be that they do not seem as intrusive as Worldcoin, which requires scanning your iris on a metal ball. Some of these methods, such as Idena’s captcha “checkpoint ceremony,” even seem to retain a certain level of anonymity without requiring a large amount of personal data sharing or third-party identity authentication centers.
The Future of Human Identity
As artificial intelligence continues to advance and exhibits more and more characteristics similar to human behavior, the design of novel mechanisms for proving human identity becomes increasingly important, not only for the incentive measures discussed in universal basic income and many other projects for proving human identity but also as a way to better purify and regulate future social networks.
However, from data privacy to the intrusiveness of the process, and to determining the effectiveness of human identity, this process involves many trade-offs and is one of the well-known “problems in cryptocurrencies.” As Vitalik pointed out, there doesn’t seem to be an ideal form of human identity proof, and he proposed a possible hybrid path as a suggestion: a biometric-based starting method, but transitioning to more social graph-based methods in the long run.
Looking ahead, this field needs more transparency in processes, code, and data. In short, there should not be an ironic paradox where users need to “trust that this is a trustless solution”. Only through this approach can we truly create a social networking foundation that aligns with the original decentralized and privacy vision of cryptocurrency.