Picture a future where you only need one username and password for all your online needs, and it’s more secure, private, and trustworthy than anything Facebook, Apple, or Google offers. This is the goal of the Ethereum Name System, which is leading the movement to transform everything we know about online identity.
The Ethereum Foundation awarded a $1 million grant to ENS Labs in 2017. Today, ENS Labs receives funding from the ENS DAO, which is a decentralized autonomous organization that governs the ENS protocol and controls approximately $66m in assets (USDC and ETH).
Nick Johnson, former Google engineer, started ENS Labs with a mission to map Ethereum wallet addresses, 64-character codes, to human-readable names. Say you want to send me some cryptocurrency. Instead of having to save my 64-character code, you can simply remember my ENS name: “castig.eth.” Today there are more than 2.7 million active ENS names held by 663,000 participants.
What is Self-Soverign Identity?
The way ENS works is similar to how the internet works. Every website address is a string of random numbers. If you type 220.127.116.11 in your browser, you’ll be taken to Google. Because no one wants to remember all these numbering systems, the DNS (Domain Name System) — also known as domains or the “.com” and “.org” domains — were invented as human-readable shortcuts. The way ENS works is similar.
Website domains create a map for easily navigating to the internet. ENS believes their “.eth” naming convention will create a similar type of directory for human identity.
The promise of a global passport for the Internet isn’t new. Microsoft Passport (2008), Facebook Connect (2008), OpenID (2007), and more have vied to become the one username/password to rule them all. The problem with these services is you don’t “own” your identity, you rent it. Just as easily as your online identity was offered, it can be revoked. And with every new app that is created, the users are forced to leave a trail of personal data all around the internet, or succumb to a centralized identity system.
Self-sovereign identity, first coined by entrepreneur Christopher Allen in 2017, is a type of internet online identity that is owned, portable, and persistent. If you’re familiar with the technology that makes bitcoin and NFTs digital property, then understanding sovereign identity is straightforward. Self-sovereign identity uses a similar blend of blockchain and cryptographic technologies. The challenge now is mainstream adoption.
How SIWE Helps ENS Growth
To disrupt traditional login verification, in 2021, ENS Labs and the non-profit Ethereum Foundation sponsored an initiative called Sign-in With Ethereum. Their mission is to offer an open source alternative to Facebook, Apple and Google logins. Therefore, wherever users see the option to Sign-in with Ethereum, you’ll also be granted the ability to seamlessly use your ENS .eth name, and maintain self-sovereign rights over your identity as you visit all supporting apps.
Sign-in with Ethereum is an open source standard created by Gregory Rocco and Wayne Chang. In 2022, they raised a $34 million Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz to scale Spruce — an independent company dedicated to facilitating the adoption of the Sign-in With Ethereum standard.
Today there are at least 1,100 projects that have installed SIWE libraries, and the Sign-in with Ethereum library recently crossed 1 million downloads.
“Our mission is focused on the mass adoption of ENS as an open source naming system for the internet. We are not here to make money — everything we do is in service of onboarding as many users as possible to ENS.” explains Alisha.eth, Governance Lead at ENS Domain.
What's the difference between ENS, BNS, Lens and Polygon?
BNS (.btc), Lens (.lens), and Polygon ID are just a few self-sovereign identity naming systems competing with ENS.
BNS, short for Bitcoin Naming System, offers a self-sovereign identity system secured by the Bitcoin blockchain. BNS is one-third the size of ENS in terms of unique users. Although as the Bitcoin blockchain continues to see a resurgence this year — with new technologies such as Ordinals and Nostr — the boom for a Bitcoin backed identity is growing.
Another big player on the identity layer is Lens, which allows users to register a unique .lens identifier, while also offering the added bonus of being able to “follow” other people who own .lens addresses. Each time you follow a user on Lens that connection is saved as an NFT. In this way, Lens allows you to not only own your identity, but to also own your social network.
Beyond self-sovereign identity, projects like Proof of Humanity and Proof of Existence are working to confirm a user’s humanity, while Disco.xyz, and Polygon ID allow you to control who, when, and where that data can be viewed. And a future with more personal control over our data, including digital identities, is worth imagining, indeed.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge for all these identity providers will be disrupting the status quo, aka. “Big Login”, owned by Apple, Facebook and Google. So while .eth, .btc, .lens and others may seem competitive with each other, it’s no surprise that they’ll also benefit from being cross-compatible with each other. According to Lens, “Lens Protocol + ENS = frens.”
Web3 Identities are Digital Passports for the Internet
In the United States, TSA PreCheck is a screening program that verifies your identity before you board an airplane. Because you are pre-checked, once you arrive at the airport you can more quickly navigate lines and board the plane.
Think of Web3 identities like ENS as a metaphorical pre-check for the internet. Online today we can’t verify who any given Twitter or Instagram user is because their identity is neither portable nor persistent. This leads to lots of confusion, phishing and scams. “ENS names are like digital passports. With Sign in with Ethereum, users will be able to take their ENS identities with them all over the internet,” Alisha.eth told me.
The easiest way to purchase your self-sovereign identity is using the Rainbow app. Download the app from the iPhone or Android app store, and with just a few clicks you’ll be able to register a new .eth name with roughly $5 of bitcoin, ethereum or even use Apple Pay. Alternatively, you can send and receive ethereum by navigating to ens.domains in your browser and using your MetaMask wallet to register a new .eth name.
If you'd like to get a BNS name go directly to the Btc.us where you can purchase a name with $5 worth of bitcoin, lightning or STX. As of this writing Lens names can only be claimed at https://www.lens.xyz/.
If names like .eth. .btc, and .lens continue to gain market traction, we could see a world with self-sovereign digital identity and fewer passwords. And this future may already be closer than we imagine.
Originally published in Forbes