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Plans for digital IDs need to focus on what isn’t yet known

Plans for digital IDs need to focus on what isn’t yet known

A proposed five-point plan for making digital identities — and anticipated follow-on societal benefits — succeeds where so many similar efforts have failed. It does not prescribe specific biometric tools for the world as it is today, but calls for governments to address novel challenges related to biometrics with legislation.

Instead, a UK think tank pairs problems holding back digital IDs with recommendations that start from the point of view that it makes no sense to hammer a stake in ground that is shifting at a historic pace.

Researchers at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change make only one commandment like statement. “The broader need for secure, user-centric and reusable digital identity has never been clearer.”

From there, the group calls for policies and strategies that anticipate the needs of a world that are changing on a weekly if not daily basis.

Endlessly changing life with COVID-19 is the overwhelming impetus, according to a report by the institute, but there are a strained handful more. A significant global trend today, for example, is the categorizing or recategorizing of people. Brexit is a strong example, but asylum and immigration protocols across the West are being rewritten to be more differentiating than uniting.

The group’s first point is, indeed, for the government to accept that a digital ID is inevitable. It is the best way to help economies exit lockdowns without re-igniting the pandemic. It will also, the authors state, increase productivity in the private sector and “remake the state to deliver better for citizens.”

Balkanized identity data stores guarded like eggs by hen-like bureaucracies need to be folded together for coordinated policies and some degree of accountability, according to the institute. The way to accomplish that is to “decouple” the agencies, like motor vehicle departments, from overall government policy setters who presumably would have broader perspectives and an allegiance to, in fact, policy instead of legacy.

The third recommendation is to make ecosystems of authentication controlled by each citizen’s digital wallet. “Singular, one-off identity verification … doesn’t meet modern needs.” This is a tough call. Governments would have to give up their stranglehold on the identity data they collect.

There is a fixation on creating technical standards to make digital IDs work — and they are very much needed — but, the authors write, it has become tunnel vision. Just as important are laws that make the hope of public trust realistic. Privacy and meaningful enforcement have to be ironclad promises to citizens. Regulations and guardrails for biometrics are specifically held up as an example of what new laws might be needed, and a requirement of only storing biometric data on the user’s device is mooted.

Fifth is a recognition that “where the value is being generated in the market is changing.” Policy makers too often are “focused on fixing the immature market as it is now, rather than anticipating where it’s going.”

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