Will COVID-19 birth global digital IDs? It’s a nice dream…
It is best not to expect the COVID-19 pandemic to push world governments to create interoperable digital identities, even though such a development would help to safely open borders as conditions permit.
An online panel discussion sponsored by financial services giant MasterCard and biometric ID verifier Onfido last week noted that videoconferencing has gone mainstream in the developed world almost overnight in response to the deadly coronavirus.
But the barriers to digital identities that centralize personal data of each person are as numerous as the nations on Earth.
The panel featured Paul Meyer, CEO of The Commons Project, a non-profit public trust focused on addressing digital ID and related health care needs with software products and services. He was joined by Husayn Kassai, CEO and co-founder of Onfido and Bryn Robinson-Morgan, vice president of digital identity for MasterCard.
All made the point that identity in much of the developed world today is decentralized, with various spheres of a person’s lives controlling bits: government, health care, legal, education, financial and so on.
That scramble, even focused strictly on domestic use of health care data, was largely abandoned in favor of discussion about giving people some degree of digital control over personal health care and national information on an international scale. The conceit being that nations will increasingly insist on knowing travelers’ COVID-19 status before admitting them.
Meyer said there must soon be a secure and private way of saying, “I’ve been vaccinated. Please, let me come to England.”
The discussion kept coming back to a mechanism or service within an individual’s control that shares the least amount of data as possible following a request from a source that is trusted by that individual.
A simple example favored by the panel was a gatekeeper function that would receive a request: Has this person been tested for COVID-19 antibodies? The gatekeeper would only reply yes or no, and only if the requester was trusted.
It is not a novel idea, but it illustrates both how simple and complex it would be to get something like that to work internationally.
Robinson-Morgan said the idea does not call for a global ID card, an idea that would be anathema to a vocal and politically active segment of the U.S. population. Instead, he reached back to the earliest days of local area networking for a solution: interoperability.
All participating nations would collect or authenticate an agreed upon standard set of data points, though each nation could still collect anything it wanted from its own people. Maybe it would only be coronavirus status, but other internationally useful datapoints that ease travel could be found, too.
And, of course, nations would have to agree on standards like formatting, language (coding and spoken), medium, sharing protocols, storage protocols, appeals process, tracking and tracing and so on.
Meyer said numerous times that he would grudgingly settle for a digital ID that only confirmed COVID-19 information, but only if any resulting system was built as a platform onto which new capabilities could be bolted on as politicians came around to the promise of eased friction in travel.
Of course, the U.K., where Meyer, in his example, said he wanted to go, is not waiting to deliberate how an interoperable digital ID might work. It is busy erecting border speed bumps between it and all of Europe.
Rapid adoption of videoconferencing might have to do for some time when surveying coronavirus silver linings.