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What we mean by Digital Identity

There are two different ways to look at an individual’s digital identity. One way would be to consider the online personas we create on social media; often comparable to the real-world characters that we play, compiled of our actions, relationships, possessions, accomplishments, etc. The other kind of digital identities we create are used for online services, and most of the time, we create a new one for each service we use. It’s the latter kind of identity that can really provide value to us as citizens, but also as societies. Of course, I’m not referring to the identities we set up for Netflix or Tesco, as I see little reason why they should talk to each other about me, but if we look at a national digital identity that enables government departments, public services, and private businesses to all refer to me in the same way, we can see a tangible improvement to the way we operate in society.

A national digital identity has a lot of potential, not only to make citizens’ lives easier, but also to add massive efficiencies to the government itself. It’s not always easy, Germany being an example, but the best things never are. One obstacle to a national digital identity can stem from a distrust in the government. People can become very animated when discussing why a national ID is a bad idea, let alone, a digital one. They have concerns about privacy or giving the government more control, and many other reasons, ranging from reasonable to bizarre. This is a difficult barrier to get past, as this kind of topic can form in peoples’ minds like a belief system, where no amount of debate or logic can influence. The other extreme is a general apathy for change, and can be an even greater barrier.

Both obstacles can be overcome by the same principal. This new way of working must provide value from the start. Many people with concerns about privacy and the government having too much data still use Facebook and Gmail, even after data breaches and scandals for both. So, why are they OK with giving so much personal information to these tech giants? Because these companies provide great services and entertainment; they provide value, and it has become very clear over the past 15 years that people will trade data and privacy for value, and forgive/forget in the event of a data leak.

To create this value, the digital identity must simplify processes and services that the majority of the population use on a regular basis, and to do that we need the right technology. There are two main pieces; a method of authenticating against the identity, and a platform on which to use it for both the public and private sector. Like the passport, the method of identifying ourselves must be incredibly difficult to fake, it must be widely accepted, simple to use, and it must involve ownership, i.e. I own and keep possession of my passport. There are different technologies that can fulfil this, ranging from the older smart card to the latest tech requiring no more than a smart phone.

The other technological piece to this puzzle is the platform on which the data relevant to this identity is accessed and exchanged. The biggest advantages to a national digital identity come from the interactions it enables. With the right infrastructure and my permission, the tax authority, my employer, my hospital, and my insurance company could all access the relevant data they need from each other, in the event I injured myself and couldn’t work. There’d be no need to prove to anyone that I’d injured myself, because the hospital could quickly and easily give them access to my medical file in a few clicks, with absolute confidence they are asking about me, and I have given my permission. I get pulled over by the police? I don’t need to be carrying my driver’s license or insurance, I just need to identify myself and they can check. Prescription for medicine? Accessible by the pharmacist. Eligible to claim benefits for a baby? Birth cert accessible by welfare office. Applying for bank account? Details on salary and assets accessible by teller. The list goes on.

The government benefits as well. Apart from the reduced time spent interacting with people in person or back and forth through letters and email, there is great potential to reduce fraud, one example being benefits fraud. Through improved levels of communication between government departments, and the reduced need to consider easily falsified documents; claiming benefits on behalf of others or the same benefits in different parts of the country can become almost impossible. The UK has seen almost £2B fraudulently or mistakenly claimed in one year.

All of this is only possible with the right technology; technology that has security, ownership, and transparency by design; technology with trust built in. People must have confidence that if someone looks at their data, they will know. They must have no doubt that no one else could authenticate or verify on their behalf. People must feel their privacy is intact, but what might seem counter-intuitive, is that the unique identifier assigned to each individual should not be private. It should not be like the TFN in Australia, the NIN in the UK, or the SSN in the US. It should be like our passport numbers; something we are not afraid to show to the government or the nightclub bouncer. This identifier need only be a link to my identity, not my information. This means, just like we can use our passport or driver’s license, we can use this identifier whenever a greater level of assurance is needed.

This topic is too large to cover in full in one short article, but hopefully some of the major aspects that need to be considered have been covered; immediate value to the people, enabling technologies, transparency in the system, and openness of the unique identifier. Having recently moved to Estonia, I’ve seen first-hand through an outsider’s eyes, the incredible benefits of the world’s most advanced digital government. Estonia is an incredible example of what can be, and there is a lot that can be learnt from this tiny digital nation.



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