Why would you share more data than you need to?

We've recently started working with Privacy by Design, the foundation responsible for the technology behind IRMA. IRMA is a unique, privacy-enabled identity platform, whose users share only as much information about themselves as they want to. "We see our strengths as complementary."

IRMA protects your privacy

IRMA is the brainchild of Radboud University's Professor Bart Jacobs, well-known in the tech world for his work on projects such as the public transport chip card. The foundation's name is an acronym derived from "I Reveal My Attributes". In ICT, an attribute is any personal characteristic, such as age, address or Public Service Number. With IRMA, you can choose which attributes you reveal, and which you don't. "Often, an organisation you interact with only really needs to know one of your attributes," says Jacobs. "For example, if you want to play an X-rated computer game, it doesn't matter who you are, just how old you are. And, with a medical statement, the main thing is the doctor's professional registration details." In practice, however, most websites, apps and on-line utilities work with user profiles that contain a lot of data besides what's necessary to deliver the relevant information or service. As a user, you have no control over what data is processed. IRMA protects your privacy by disclosing only as much info about you as strictly necessary. It also makes you less vulnerable to identity theft, because data you haven't shared can't be abused.

Bart Jacobs

Long association

At SIDN, we're committed to boosting the value of the internet for the Netherlands. First and foremost, that means building a secure and trustworthy .nl domain. However, we also promote security, and we develop and share knowledge. The growth domains of on-line security and digital identity are mainly where we're looking to develop new activities. "Our acquisition of Connectis and our new partnership with Privacy by Design illustrate our involvement in the second of those domains," explains Sjoerd van Gellecum, Proposition Developer at SIDN. "However, Connectis operates mainly in the business-to-business market, whereas SIDN's goal is safe and convenient digital living for everyone. Growth in the use of digital identities supports that goal. It's an attractive concept, with a sound technical basis. We looked at the possibility of collaborating before, but back then IRMA's technology wasn't optimised for on-line use. We stayed in contact, though. SIDN Fund also believes in IRMA, making a grant to the foundation in 2017. And, with IRMA's identity platform now up and running, we feel that this is the right time for closer ties. We want to take the technology to the next level."

Benefits of scale

Privacy by Design was equally keen to find a partner, acknowledges Jacobs: "We're strong on the technical side. Less so on the operational side – activities such as marketing. We're also quite a small organisation. And that can sometimes be problematic: potential partners often ask questions about our stability. Will Privacy by Design still be around five years from now? What happens to the foundation if I step away? How can we be sure that your solution will always work? By linking up with SIDN, we're not only gaining access to operational expertise, but also aligning ourselves with a large, stable organisation... the backbone of the Dutch Internet. And an organisation whose mission matches ours. Another plus is that, like us, SIDN is a non-profit organisation. IRMA is open source and has to stay that way. We're looking for a sustainable way of funding the IRMA infrastructure and further development; we're not looking to make our fortunes."  

Sjoerd van Gellecum

Joint market offering

Under the new partnership, we're taking responsibility for a crucial part of IRMA's technical infrastructure. We'll also be working with Privacy by Design to bring its innovative solution to market and engage with potential clients. Asked about exactly what SIDN and Privacy by Design will be offering, Jacobs stresses, "Our solution is still at an early stage of development. When it comes to arranging for people to give their digital identity data to IRMA, will organisations want to handle that themselves or contract it out? IRMA is currently based on a certain number of attributes. However, companies may want to add other attributes. For example, a supermarket might want to know whether a person is a store card holder or not. We can arrange that." Van Gellecum adds, "We're currently looking for the first real-world case, which we'll then develop together. After that, it'll be a question of expansion."

Learning by doing

"The exact form that collaboration will take hasn't been decided, but there's a clear intention on both sides to establish a long-term partnership," says Jacobs. "Keeping things open is a deliberate strategy, so that we retain our flexibility and agility. We can put things on a formal footing later. Maybe we'll opt to create a separate foundation together. Who knows." Van Gellecum agrees: "We're convinced that IRMA has great potential, and we see our strengths as complementary. So there's nothing to be gained by waiting and investigating possible collaboration forms. It's better to just get cracking. You learn most by doing. Our ambition is to work with IRMA to make access to on-line services and transactions easier, thus increasing the added value for the Dutch internet community. We could also introduce a new digital identity to the Dutch market, or use it as a basis for the development of particular applications for consumers and businesses."

Enthusiastic reception

IRMA is riding high in the popularity stakes. The municipality of Nijmegen has started a major pilot, for example. Citizens have the option of using their details, as recorded in the city's population register, for their IRMA digital identities. At the start of the year, IRMA won the Dutch Privacy Award, and in the autumn Bart Jacobs carried off the prestigious 2018 Brouwer Prize for Science and Society. SIDN Fund is a big admirer too, providing a grant of € 75,000 for realisation of an interface between IRMA and the SURFnet project Let’s Connect. "The grant application wasn't linked to our new partnership with SIDN," clarifies Jacobs. "The Fund is completely separate from SIDN. But the tie-in did crop up in our talks. The Fund asked us about our plans for professionalising the service, because they place a lot of emphasis on durability – they want to support projects that will have real impact. So it was great to able to say that we were planning to collaborate with SIDN." 


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