Action is needed now on digital identities

Ruth Milligan of techUK explains why the government must take the lead to ensure the UK implements a system of digital identities

Credit: Kalsom Cheman/CC BY-SA 4.0

How often in our day-to-day lives do we have to prove who we are? 

When we want to open a bank account, apply for a mortgage, insurance or any financial product; when we register with a GP; when we want to renew our passport or check our taxes; when, as a young person, we want to get into a club or buy alcohol. 

Currently, we often do this by physically producing our passports or utility bills, a cumbersome process, completely out of synch with the digital world into which we are fast moving. In this world, the need to securely verify and authenticate data about ourselves in a digital way is becoming a pressing issue. 

It is clearly time for the UK to establish a robust framework for digital identities, which can be used by businesses and individuals across both the public and the private sectors. As argued in the techUK white Paper, The Case for digital IDs, secure digital identities are an essential key to unlocking the value and reaping the full benefits of online services in the digital economy. Such a system will enable new services to be made available, secure against fraud, allow connectivity among digital services and greatly contribute to the economy as a whole. 

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At a launch event for the white paper in the House of Commons on 6 February, techUK pointed out that other jurisdictions across the world are creating digital ID systems, and there is a pressing need for the UK government to take the lead – to bring together the different industry groups already working to this end and to ensure a framework is created. This should be a joint effort involving private industry, stakeholders and standards bodies within the UK and internationally. 

techUK member Steve Pannifer from Consult Hyperion, explained that the Nordic countries had seen a 1-2% increase in GDP from using digital IDs – the UK should learn from their experiences. Two forces are needed to make this happen: a ‘push’ from central government to bring people together and build standards; and a ‘pull’ from industry and businesses through investment, innovation and generating a market.

Changes in the financial sector also require new ways of proving identity. Andrew Churchill, from Technology Strategy, pointed to open banking and the requirements for two-factor authentication, coming into force in September 2019. We should be looking to protect all our data through equally strong security coupled with interoperability and secure standards. 
Julie Dawson of Yoti noted the clear demand for online identity verification in multiple instances, from dating sites to age verification for young people using social media. This demonstrates that digital identities must be accepted as being equally valid as paper ID. The UK has immense technical expertise in this field and the export opportunities are huge.

Two forces are needed to make this happen: a ‘push’ from central government; and a ‘pull’ from industry and businesses.

Yes, there are difficulties to be overcome. We must cater for different types of identity – risk profiles depend on what an identity is used for, and there are layers of verification requirements in different instances. Trust in the solutions will be crucial and therefore a robust liability model with dispute resolution will also be needed. We will also need the infrastructures to deliver data securely to mobile devices.  

But the urgent need for digital identities in the UK has become so visible that these complexities cannot deter us from action. It will take much collaborative work, but as long as the willingness from industry is there and government gives a clear policy lead, the UK has the expertise to make it happen. In our aspirations to build a digital economy, we must act now on digital IDs, or risk falling behind.

Sam Trendall

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