Estonia’s platform seen as poster child for successful digital ID verification

Estonia’s platform seen as poster child for successful digital ID verification

Digital experts from 16 countries discussed digital ID verification platforms and their struggles at the Global Government Forum’s first Digital Summit in London, the organization reports.

A top highlight was Estonia’s developed digital setup, which most attendees would hope to replicate in their own countries. According to Lauri Lugna, Estonia’s Ministry of the Interior, some 20 years ago, the country established its X-road network which makes data transfers fast and secure through centrally-decided protocols and data formats. The system can be used for both government and private sector databases. Analyzing its universal digital identity verification system, Estonia seems to have figured out the digital ID verification challenge, which many governments are still struggling with.

Not only was Estonia’s e-identity platform built on a foundation established by banks two decades ago, but a post-Soviet climate and reduced population also helped with development complexity and fast adoption. Current broadband coverage in Estonia is 90 percent, and 99 percent of government services can be accessed online.

The platform is built on the ‘once only’ principle, which prevents civil servants from asking for citizens’ data if it has already been provided to a government body, and on ‘trust by design,’ which puts security and public confidence first. For example, when a weakness was detected in the country’s digital ID system, the government was transparent about the problem and did not hide it from the public so it would not jeopardize its trust.

Governments are looking into machine learning solutions to enable the use and sharing of real-time data, however, according to Greg Ainslie-Malik, a Machine Learning Architect at Splunk, companies do not always have visibility into the data’s origin, quality and formatting which may affect accuracy and consistency.

When asked about challenges and scalability, Lugna said the digital identity system is scalable, with value lying in citizens being in control and ownership of their data. In the platform, citizens can also see who has viewed their personal information, when and why. The digital signature process lets citizens vote and approve documents. Approximately 46 percent of votes in the 2019 European elections were cast digitally. Unlike in Estonia, citizens in many other countries do not have a broad overview over how their data is used by government which makes them reluctant to share it.

Colin Cook, the Scottish Government’s Director of Digital, said Estonia’s single, central database may not be a solution for some countries where there are cultural barriers and public concerns about central ID systems. In Germany, for example, even though national identity cards became mandatory a while ago, Germans do not really use the digital ID verification system because they ca not access private sector services, explained Tobias Plate, Head of the Digital State Unit in Germany’s Federal Chancellery.

In federal countries such as the U.S. it might be tougher to introduce national ID systems, according to Edward Hartwig, Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service, because there are thousands of offices issuing birth certificates and the main ID document in the country is the driver’s license. While praising Estonia’s system, Hartwig is convinced it would not be feasible in the U.S.

While there are impediments to introducing a single, unified government ID system, said other participants, it might be a solution to introduce an identity verification platform with multiple applications for public and private sectors, to make it as convenient as possible.

Denmark and Sweden have built their digital identity systems around bank services, and Sweden’s future plan is to introduce a public sector system for people without bank accounts to access digital public services. New Zealand’s its Chief Digital Officer Paul James felt more confident following the discussion, although the country has registered slowed progress in locally developing an ID verification platform due to a declining public sector system.

In terms of standards, governments should focus on interoperability and make sure digital IDs can be used for multiple operations internationally, explained McEvoy – GDS’s Deputy Director for UK and International.

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