TU Wien Informatics

Bryan Ford: “Digital Personhood”

  • 2021-10-13
  • Security & Privacy

The ViSP Distinguished Lecture Series continues with a talk by Bryan Ford of EPFL, Switzerland.

Bryan Ford: “Digital Personhood”

  • This is an online-only event.
    See description for details.

Bryan Ford leads the Decentralized/Distributed Systems (DEDIS) research laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). Ford’s research focuses on decentralized systems, security and privacy, digital democracy, and blockchain technology. Since earning his Ph.D. at MIT, Ford has held faculty positions at Yale University and EPFL. His awards include the Jay Lepreau Best Paper Award, the NSF CAREER award, and the AXA Research Chair.

Inventions he is known for include parsing expression grammars, delegative or liquid democracy, and scalable sharded blockchains. He has advised numerous companies and governments, including serving on the US DARPA Information Science and Technology (ISAT) Study Group and on the Swiss Federal E-voting Experts Dialog.

Public Lecture


Internet technologies have often been called “democratizing” by virtue of giving anyone a voice in countless online forums. Technology cannot actually be “democratizing” by democratic principles, however, unless it serves everyone, offers everyone not just a voice but an equal voice, and is accountable to and ultimately governed by the people it serves. Today’s technology offers not democracy but guardianship, subjecting our online lives to the arbitrary oversight of unelected employees, committees, platforms, and algorithms, which serve profit motives or special interests over our broader interests. Can we build genuinely democratizing technology that serves its users inclusively, equally, and securely?

A necessary first step is digital personhood: enabling technology to distinguish between real people and fake accounts such as sock puppets, bots, or deep fakes. Digital identity approaches undermine privacy and threaten our effective voice and freedoms, however, both in existing real-world democracies and in online forums that we might wish to embody democratic ideals. An emerging ecosystem of “proof of personhood” schemes attempts to give willing participants exactly one credential each while avoiding the privacy risks of digital identity. Proof of personhood schemes may operate in the physical world or online, building on security foundations such as in-peron events, biometrics, social trust networks, and Turing tests. We will explore the promise and challenges of secure digital personhood, and the tradeoffs of different approaches along the key metrics of security, privacy, inclusion, and equality. We will cover further security challenges such as resisting collusion, coercion, or vote-buying. Finally, we will outline a few applications of secure digital personhood, both already prototyped and envisioned.

Online Event

Join us via Zoom: tuwien.zoom.us/j/91576022024

About The Lecture Series

ViSP is organizing a Distinguished Lecture Series with internationally renowned researchers from the field of Security & Privacy. Every month there will be a talk on a current research topic, followed by an open discussion.

About ViSP

ViSP, the Vienna Cybersecurity and Privacy Research Center, consists of researchers from IST Austria, TU Wien and Uni Wien. With these three institutes, Vienna offers an exceptional degree of excellence for research in the area of Security and Privacy. The mission of ViSP is to unlock the true potential of the location by fostering collaborations between different institutes in Vienna. This collaboration strives to do impactful research and advance state of the art, securing Vienna’s pioneer role in the research in Security and Privacy.

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