A Trustless Zero-Knowledge Internet
Resolving the Digital Business Trilemma through Decentralized Business Automation
The rapid evolution of the internet over the last 30+ years has revolutionized the way we exchange information and conduct transactions, thereby completely changing how business is conducted and how societies operate.
However, concerns surrounding privacy, security, and the need for centralized trust providers persist. In today’s dynamic computing environment, single entities cannot provide solutions that are both secure, scalable, and respectful of privacy in a highly distributed manner. The multi-trillion dollar Digital Business Trilemma starkly illustrates the complexity of this problem. Enterprises are capable of fulfilling, at most, two of the following three criteria for their digital services: security, decentralization, and performance. Even further, it posits that security vulnerabilities are increasing exponentially as today’s computing environment becomes more decentralized. In instances where security has been overlooked or compromised, it takes entities on average 6 months to discover — and over 2 months to remediate — security breaches. This delay means that personal data remains exposed and open to abuse for a significant period, even after vulnerabilities have been identified.
To address these exponentially increasing security and privacy challenges, this piece introduces the concept of a trustless zero-knowledge internet (TZKI). This article will explore the definition of a trustless zero-knowledge internet and delve into the technologies that enable it, namely secure data exchange, verifiably correct transaction execution, and self-sovereign identity for implementing government-mandated Zero Trust.
When combined with the current internet, these technologies enable the digital business trilemma to be addressed through decentralized business automation. This solution offers collaborative, automated, secure, private, and trusted execution of today’s complex digital business processes without a single point of failure.
Defining a Trustless Zero-Knowledge Internet
A trustless zero-knowledge internet is an overlay network. This layer operates on top of the existing internet infrastructure and ensures secure, private, and verifiably correct interactions and data exchanges without the need for trust in any one particular entity. It serves to enable authentication and authorization of every participant for every digital business interaction, prove and verify the authenticity and integrity of transactions, and minimize the exchange of sensitive data — ideally reducing it to zero.
Imagine if you could verify with the click of a button the authenticity of an invoice — we call this capability Decentralized Business Automation (DeBA), or, Multiparty Zero Trust under Zero Knowledge (MZTZK).
The key technology pillars of TZKI can be broken down and described as follows:
At the heart of a trustless zero-knowledge internet are zero-knowledge proofs — cryptographic techniques that allow one party to prove knowledge of certain information to another party without revealing the information itself. Zero-knowledge proofs enable secure and verifiably correct data derivation without disclosing sensitive details. Examples of zero-knowledge proof systems include zk-SNARKs (Zero-Knowledge Succinct Non-Interactive Argument of Knowledge) and zk-STARKs (Zero-Knowledge Scalable Transparent Arguments of Knowledge).
In a trustless zero-knowledge internet, preserving privacy is paramount. Beyond zero-knowledge proofs, encryption, and anonymization techniques, protecting the confidentiality of exchanged data is crucial. Entities can employ technologies like homomorphic encryption, secure multi-party computation, and privacy-preserving protocols, such as the Secure Multi-Party Internet Routing Protocol (SMPIRP) or libp2p, to ensure privacy during data exchanges.
Trustless authentication and authorization require robust identity management mechanisms. W3C Decentralized identifiers (DIDs) provide a means for entities to establish and manage their identities in a self-sovereign manner without trust assumptions relying on one entity using W3C Verifiable Credentials and blockchain or distributed ledger technologies to ensure the integrity of DIDs and their cryptographic signing keys at all time.
In a trustless zero-knowledge internet, entities must authenticate each other without relying on a central authority, and so must use digital signatures, cryptographic keys, and zero-knowledge proofs. Entities can use digital signatures to verify the authenticity of identities and prove ownership of cryptographic keys. Zero-knowledge proofs ensure trustless authentication, allowing entities to prove knowledge of specific information without revealing it. Zero-knowledge proof authentication protocols such as ZKAP (Zero-Knowledge Access Pass), DID SIOP, and Polygon ID provide trustless and privacy-preserving authentication mechanisms.
Trustless authorization is essential in a trustless zero-knowledge internet. It ensures that interactions–whether exchanging data like pricing information or sending digital assets to pay an invoice–adhere to predefined rules without the need for centralized governing entities. Smart contracts, executed on consensus-controlled platforms such as Ethereum, facilitate trustless authorization by providing verifiably correct application of business logic to identity and business process data. Smart contracts allow the establishment of predefined rules and conditions, and ensure that entities can authorize actions in a manner not relying on a single trusted entity (or, a single point of failure). To add privacy to trustless authorization, logic expressed in code for granting permissions can be executed in a verifiably correct manner using using zero-knowledge virtual machines such as Polygon Miden, Risc-Zero, or Ethereum-specific solutions such as ConsenSys’ Linea zkEVM. The proofs for these operations can be anchored and verified by anyone on public blockchains.
Permissioned Access and Privacy Controls
In a trustless, zero-knowledge internet, entities retain control over their data by setting fine-grained access controls and privacy preferences. Attribute-based encryption technologies enable access control based on specific attributes, such as holding a particular verifiable credential, rather than the identity of the entity requesting access. Privacy-enhancing technologies like zero-knowledge data sharing protocols utilize verifiable credentials, which are expressed as zero-knowledge proofs, to allow entities to selectively disclose information while maintaining confidentiality.
Addressing the Digital Business Trilemma
The digital business trilemma, explains why the trade-off between scalability, security, and decentralization poses a significant challenge to digital business at a global scale. However, leveraging a trustless zero-knowledge internet makes it possible to alleviate the trilemma at a smaller scale, albeit not a global scale, and creates a more balanced business ecosystem. Ecosystem participants may be individual entities or small networks of entities interacting between and with each other.
Scalability: Trustless zero-knowledge solutions can employ techniques like sharding, off-chain computation, and layer-two protocols to enhance the scalability of verifiably correct computations and the integrity preservation of its outcomes. For instance, solutions such as zk-zk-Rollups and zk-Optimistic Rollups leverage zero-knowledge proofs to bundle multiple transactions and compute them off-chain while maintaining the security guarantees of their underlying public blockchain networks. These approaches enable high transaction throughput without sacrificing either security or privacy.
Security: The trustless nature of a zero-knowledge internet inherently addresses security concerns. These cryptographic techniques and protocols ensure the secure exchange of data, the authentication of identity without relying on central authorities, and the authorization of interactions based on predefined rules. Additionally, the transparency and immutability provided by blockchain and distributed ledger technologies enhance security by preventing tampering and providing auditable records of the proofs of correct execution of off-chain computations.
Decentralization: By eliminating the need for central authorities in identity management in managing 15 billion-plus IoT devices, a trustless zero-knowledge internet promotes decentralized decision-making and governance while using the verifiability of computations from zkVMs and data integrity from distributed storage technologies such as IPFS, Arweave, or GunDB. The distributed nature of computation and storage mitigates the risk of single points of failure, censorship, and fraud.
In short, applications that are utilizing the components of a TZKI together can enable business automation that is secure, private, and as trustless and decentralized as a business process has to be to meet its requirements. This is independent of whether that process is a global supply chain or an on-demand car insurance contract.
Real-World Applications: From Now to Tomorrow
The concept of a TZKI can be applied in various industry domains that have rapidly evolving privacy, security, and trust challenges — not only tomorrow, but right now. Here are some examples.
The telecommunication industry faces numerous challenges related to privacy, security, and decentralization, most notably within digital service supply chains that rely on edge computing. As these edge-based products grow increasingly sophisticated and on-demand, the industry confronts the digital business trilemma: balancing the rising decentralization driven by edge computing with the need for robust security and optimal performance. Through its MEF Showcase program, the industry-leading consortium MEF is addressing these issues with a focus on decentralized business automation on top of a TZKI with the involvement of some of the largest Telecom service providers in the world. These initiatives include a range of use cases, from facilitating quoting and ordering between multiple service providers for data on-demand services — organized through a Web3 DAO — to providing trusted location services for the mobility sector and other industries. These use cases focus on the implementation of two recent MEF industry standards: the MEF 118 standard around Zero Trust and self-sovereign identity, and the MEF 114 standard around multi-party business process coordination and automation under zero knowledge.
The UN predicts that population growth within large urban areas will top 50% by 2050, effectively creating concentrated decentralization. In this scenario, although populations are geographically concentrated in cities, the complexity and scale of urban challenges, like pollution, congestion, and infrastructure use — demand decentralized solutions for effective management. This growth will put a tremendous strain on cities around the globe, and will contribute to rising pollution, congestion, and inefficient use of existing infrastructure. Whether the focus is on road infrastructure or connected vehicles — both on ground and in the air — several key criteria must be fulfilled. Solutions must be scalable to adapt to growing urbanizations, secure enough to protect against potential threats, and built with privacy in mind to safeguard user data. Additionally, the high level of decentralization in mobility systems and existing regulatory frameworks, especially around data privacy, call for these solutions to be collaborative in their approach to process automation. Combining self-sovereign identity with Zero Trust and zero-knowledge proofs on top of the current internet can help address these challenges by providing new means to coordinate mobility resources and customers in compliant, safe, and scalable ways. For example, with MOBI’s Self-Sovereign Digital Twins (SSDTs), the implementation of a DID-based Zero Trust architecture means that IoT devices in vehicles and other modes of transport can become identifiable without having to link the private data of individuals to those IoT devices. This enables new pay-per-use applications such as congestion pricing, incentivizes sustainable modes of transportation, and contributes towards building infrastructure for high-use areas that track customer movements in ways that preserve privacy through trusted location services — all aided by zero-knowledge cryptography.
A specific example is the vehicle dealer floorplan audit that the Citopia vinTRAK pilot has implemented as a TZKI-enabled use case. . The pilot uses SSDTs and zero-knowledge proofs to identify and verifiably attest correct attributes of vehicles, such as their location or membership to a group of vehicles (i.e. a vehicle dealer fleet). This decentralized business automation solution coordinates multiple parties such as dealers, cars, lenders, and regulators in an automated, scalable, and privacy-preserving fashion. This automation across multiple, normally independent workflows substantially reduces the number of processes and associated personnel required for an audit. It also instantly transmits critical business information in a secure and privacy-respecting manner — eliminating substantial data distribution and processing costs for all parties involved.
Finance and Banking
In the financial sector, TZKI can transform the financial sector by providing secure, compliant, and privacy-respecting transactions without the need for some of the more traditional intermediaries such as those involved in clearing and settlement. While still in its infancy, Decentralized Finance (DeFi) platforms that leverage smart contracts and zero-knowledge proofs to enable lending, trading, and asset management with enhanced privacy and verifiability are starting to appear on privacy-focused solutions such as zk-zk- or zk-optimistic rollups. On these platforms, participants can securely engage in financial transactions while maintaining control over their sensitive financial data.
Supply Chain Management
Supply chain management is another sector that can benefit greatly from a TZKI. By utilizing zero-knowledge proofs and distributed ledgers, stakeholders can securely exchange information about product provenance, quality, and compliance without revealing sensitive business details. Participants can track and verify the authenticity of goods, ensuring transparency and trust throughout the supply chain. The Baseline Protocol is a prime example of current industry collaboration that creates standards around decentralized business automation using TZKI focused on different types and aspects of supply chains such as ESG.
Trustless zero-knowledge solutions can also revolutionize voting systems by providing secure and transparent yet privacy-respecting elections. Zero-knowledge proofs can ensure the integrity of votes while maintaining the anonymity of voters. Decentralized identity management systems can enable secure voter registration and authentication, preventing voter fraud and ensuring the legitimacy of electoral processes.
Legal and Contractual Transactions
In the legal domain, trustless zero-knowledge technologies can streamline contractual transactions while ensuring privacy and security. Smart contracts executed on a zkVM enable verifiably correct and self-executing agreements without the need for intermediaries. Zero-knowledge proofs can facilitate the verification of contract terms and conditions without disclosing confidential details, ensuring trust and regulatory compliance and reducing the risk of disputes.
A TZKI represents a novel and transformative paradigm that allows the exponentially evolving challenges of trust, privacy, and security in online interactions to be addressed in a collaborative yet automated way across an exponentially increasing number of participants. By leveraging zero-knowledge proofs, decentralized identity management, and verifiably correct transaction execution, entities can engage in secure data exchange, verifiably correct data derivation, and multi-party coordination without relying on centralized authorities. This creates truly decentralized business automation.
Technologies such as zk-SNARKs, zk-STARKS, advanced encryption, consensus mechanisms, and decentralized identity management through W3C Decentralized Identifiers and Verifiable Credentials provide the building blocks for a trustless zero-knowledge internet. By resolving the digital business trilemma and enabling automated multi-party coordination, this new paradigm opens up possibilities for new privacy-centric applications, collaborative decision-making, and innovative business models across various industry domains.
Although challenges related to scalability, interoperability, usability, and regulatory compliance remain, ongoing research and development efforts are rapidly pushing the boundaries of a trustless zero-knowledge internet.
To achieve widespread adoption, collaboration between academia, industry, consortia, and regulatory bodies is crucial — and already happening. Furthermore, standardization efforts such as in MEF, MOBI, or the Baseline Protocol are currently helping to establish interoperable protocols and frameworks, ensuring seamless integration and compatibility between different trustless systems. Additionally, regulatory frameworks need to adapt to the unique characteristics of trustless technologies, striking a balance between privacy, security, and compliance — a significant challenge even in times without exponential technology and business model change.
The evolution of a TZKI will not be without its significant challenges. Technical hurdles such as improving the efficiency and scalability of zero-knowledge proof systems, developing user-friendly interfaces, and addressing the computational requirements of complex computations remain areas of active research and development. These are further complicated by emerging regulatory frameworks such as the EU Data Act.
Furthermore, there are societal and ethical considerations to be addressed. Balancing privacy with the need for transparency and legal and ethical accountability requires careful thought and design in both technology and law. Ensuring the inclusivity and accessibility of trustless systems is essential to avoid exacerbating existing digital divides, and thus, socio-economic inequities.
As we navigate the ever-expanding and ever-more complex digital landscape, it is only through continued innovation, collaboration, and ethical considerations that we can shape a future where trust is minimized, privacy is preserved, and data exchanges are conducted on a foundation of verifiably correct digital transactions and information — a trustless zero-knowledge internet.
Originally published at mesh.xyz.