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What Are Verifiable Credentials? And How Can They Build Digital Trust?

Verifiable credentials and verifiable credential management technology offer a direct and secure channel between an organization and its stakeholders. Learn how they bring control over digital identity and build trust with organizations – from health credentials to college degrees.

two men in business suits holding brief cases shaking hands through a smart device: verifiable credentials
Verifiable credentials establish a direct and secure channel between an organization and its stakeholders. [sesame/Getty Images]

People’s trust in institutions, governments, and the media is at historic lows. And identity theft and digital fraud are at an all-time high. In this atmosphere, people want more control and protection over their digital identity. And organizations want more accurate, secure, and consensual methods of verifying stakeholder information. The solution? Verifiable credentials (VCs) – digital credentials people can own and control within a “digital wallet” on their smart device.

What are verifiable credentials?

Verifiable credentials are like a real-world wallet of valuable identity documents, such as a  passport, vaccine card, or driver’s license. But with VCs, the verification happens digitally and gives the holder the right to control the data attributes. This largely automated process saves everyone time while establishing a direct communication channel between an organization and its stakeholders. It can serve as a critical first step in securing trust.

How can verifiable credentials add benefit and build trust?

Verifiable credentials leave people feeling respected and organizations feeling confident about the security and quality of a user’s experience. A mortgage company, for example, can verify an applicant’s financial credentials while respecting their desire to keep some data private. A global manufacturer can hold an in-person customer event and verify that attendees have been vaccinated or tested for COVID-19. Imagine a hospital looking to verify a doctor’s medical degree. VCs allow this one data point — and nothing more — to be verified in a secure, direct way. This provides a better user experience for the prospective hire and creates the groundwork for future trust. 

With verifiable credentials, a club patron can prove they are over 21, but choose not to present their birth date, home address, or other personal information for entry, as would be the case when presenting a physical driver’s license.

There are also use cases that enhance privacy. Think of a nightclub that only permits people 21 or older to enter. With a VC, a club patron can prove they are over 21, but choose not to present their birth date, home address, or other personal information for entry, as would be the case when presenting a physical driver’s license.

“Think of VCs as shipping containers for data,” said Timothy Ruff, co-founder of Credential Master, a verifiable credential management (VCM) company. “Like a government issuing a passport, any issuer can put information inside a VC that its holder can carry and present, and that organizations can verify. From a business perspective, a VC enables organizations to determine, with complete confidence, not only who an individual is, but also what they’re entitled to or certified for.”

Case study: Verifiable credentials in healthcare

The pandemic presents an ideal moment to highlight the value of VCs. Many organizations are looking to return to in-person gatherings. But, until now, the process of verifying vaccine status or test credentials has been clunky and subject to fraud. People have to either show paper immunization cards or upload mobile photos.

VCs help remove these concerns. Consider the following verification scenario:

  • Holder – Ellen Suzuki, customer, ABC Wholesale Group
  • Verifier – ABC Wholesale Group
  • Issuer – The California Immunization Registry

Elllen’s pharmacy uploads her immunization records and recent COVID-19 test results to the California Immunization Registry. Ellen then requests a verifiable digital version of this data as a SMART Health Card (now adopted in six U.S. states and Canada) from the state of California in the form of a VC, which she saves in a digital wallet on her smartphone.

One week later, she is contacted by her account representative at ABC Wholesale Group, who invites her to a customer appreciation event in Los Angeles.

There is no ceiling on the number of society-wide use cases, or trusting relationships, that could be fostered by automated and digital verification that is easy, consensual, and direct.

ABC Wholesale Group requires all in-person attendees to receive a negative COVID-19 test and show proof of vaccination. The verification process is initiated when the VCM module in ABC Wholesale Group’s customer relationship management system (CRM) requests proof of Ellen’s vaccination status and a recent test result. When the request comes to her digital wallet, she can choose the attributes she wants to share.

ABC Wholesale Group can now have complete confidence the credential is about Ellen Suzuki, was presented by Ellen, and was verifiably issued by the California Immunization Registry. The entire process is automated, rapid, digital, and requires minimal human resources.

Direct, trusted relationships are a benefit of verifiable credentials

In this new model, when a VC holder interacts digitally with a verifier organization, it becomes a new, consensual, and one-to-one digital relationship. The organization and the person can then interact securely and exchange information and personalized communications. This is a deeper, trusted relationship with a consumer, and it connects people and businesses in new ways that go beyond opt-ins for emails, for example, or other permission-based communication channels.

“With VCs, there is a direct, private, even intimate relationship between holder and verifier. If, at any point, the trust is broken either party can revoke their side of the digital connection,” said Ruff. “This creates a virtuous incentive for organizations to create meaningful relationships with their customers that they must handle with care and respect.”

Today, we need nothing short of a “trust revolution” to repair the many frayed relationships across all sectors of society. Verifiable credentials and VCM technology can help build stronger, more trusting relationships between organizations and their stakeholders. And there is no ceiling on the number of society-wide use cases, or trusting relationships, that could be fostered by automated and digital verification that is easy, consensual, and direct.

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