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Author of US digital ID bill discusses central role of biometrics in ID2020 webinar

Congressman says politics of patient ID changed by opioid crisis

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When they are finally established, U.S. digital IDs will likely be based on smartphones and biometrics, U.S. Congressman Bill Foster, the author of the ‘Improving Digital Identity Act,’ which is currently before Congress with bi-partisan sponsorship, said in an ID2020 webinar.

The webinar, the closing session in ID2020’s ‘Summit Series,’ was moderated by Blythe Masters, Industry Partner at private equity firm Motive Partners and an ID2020 Board Member.

Foster referred to his background in physics, business, and integrated circuit design, and Masters noted his leadership on digital identity in the introduction.

The importance of digital identity for financial services, life online and COVID-19 responses is reflected in increasing Congressional attention, such as hearings on the topic by the Financial Services Committee’s Taskforce on Artificial Intelligence, which Foster is Chair of.

Foster discussed the need for secure digital identity to back a wide range of services, including any digital immunity certificates that might be established.

Authentication for access to medical records seems to be a more pressing concern for Foster, and proving the identity of prospective voters at polling locations could strengthen another area of major contemporary concern in America.

Central bank digital assets and digital currencies will significantly drive digital identity efforts in the coming years, Foster says, noting that the most secure blockchain in the world has no value for this type of application if people are operating on it with fraudulent identities. The underbanked population within the U.S. has also gained attention due to the challenges posed distributing pandemic stimulus payments, and Foster suggests the U.S. is more sensitive to the need for digital identity to help address anti money-laundering (AML) and corruption concerns than it has been in the past.

“The desire that many people have for a controlled amount of anonymity, and a controlled amount of legal traceability on different platforms” is another potential driver for digital ID, Foster says.

An estimated $16 billion was stolen from U.S. consumers in 2018, showing the basic cost of identity theft and fraud.

Fortunately, Foster says, there a number of things Congress can do to make “portable, reliable and secure digital IDs a reality,” noting that the Treasury Department is focused on the issue, and will likely continue to be so in the next administration.

Banks are both motivated and well-positioned to help banking and tech merge in the coming decades, though if they do not work together, Foster says, tech firms will be happy to take on the role of identifying people online for them. The Congressman characterized this situation as two monsters sizing each other up over a gulf, with the risk for “the poor consumer” in the middle to be crushed in their conflict.

Big tech is not used to heavy regulation the way banks are, so there is room for them to work together, Foster suggests.

Foster notes that he worked with Congressman Mike Kelly to remove the ban on federal funding for a unique federal identifier through an amendment to the Labor HHS bill. If the amendment, which passed the house unanimously, is passed by the Senate, it will allow HHS to move forward on patient ID for Americans, which Foster says could save tens of thousands of lives a year.

The ban which prevented Americans from being identified as the same patient in medical facilities across the street from each other for the past 25 years Foster lays at the feet of former Congressman Ron Paul. What has changed in the politics around that ban, Foster says, is that the need to end doctor shopping to address the opioid crisis has made clear the weaknesses in the system of siloed patient identities.

The U.S. also needs to up its game and work with other countries and regional blocks to counter China’s plan to establish a Central Bank digital currency to use as the default currency in its Belt and Road Initiative.

“Biometrics are going to play a huge role in all of this,” Foster notes.

Part of that involves the deduplication of state driver’s licenses through the Real ID system, but more needs to be done.

The “Improving Digital Identity Act” would prioritize the development of digital ID in the U.S. by bringing key stakeholders together, unlock funding and establishing standards.

The combination of each individual’s smartphone and biometrics will provide defense against identity fraud, and the impressive technology continues to improve, Foster says.

Masters asked what compromises were necessary to reach the bipartisan digital ID proposal, but Foster says that aside from an objection filed by the ACLU, little resistance has been expressed so far. The compromise may lie ahead.

Asked by an audience member what level of government would establish the digital ID, Foster expressed preference for state IDs governed by federal standards, though he acknowledged that is part of an ongoing discussion. A good compromise may involve blocks of states that follow the same sets of standards.

Other questions explored the role of the private sector in a prospective ID system, and the possible role of technology in voting, which Foster sees hard limits to.

The sessions was cut slightly short by Congressional business, but like all webinars in the series is available as a recording from ID2020’s website.

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