Will digital ID replace physical identity documents within 10 years?

Will digital ID replace physical identity documents within 10 years?

A panel of digital identity experts used their knowledge plus a little imagination to look ahead ten years and discuss whether they thought biometrics and digital technologies will have made paper and even plastic identity credentials obsolete.

The speakers met at the UN Legal Identity Agenda Task Force’s Private Sector Engagement Roundtables of Future Technological Process and Institutional Governance in Identity Management. The session itself had the snappier title ‘Is the clock ticking for paper and plastic?’

The general consensus is that yes that clock is very much ticking. But in answer to ‘Does the private sector think UN member states will still be issuing plastic and paper credentials in ten years’ time?’ the consensus was still a unanimous ‘yes.’

“In terms of the systems that are being designed and rolled out, I think they need to cater for the possible eventual elimination of the paper, the physical card,” said Lyle Charles Laxton Founder and CEO, Laxton Group. “The ultimate reason for that is the cost of these consumables as well as the logistical element for governance.”

Laxton believes that as paper credentials exist for offline verification, they could be replaced with a digital credential that functions offline, such as on a smartphone or 2G feature phone. This would make any paper or plastic documents necessary for backup purposes.

“We should go for far more cost-effective physical documents than what is required because ultimately it will become a backup certificate to the digital certificates as well as the central record,” said Laxton.

Things simply cannot move that quickly, according to Kenichi Nakamura from the Technology Liaison Department of Panasonic Corporation’s Innovation Strategy Office. He is developing mobile passports and mobile driving licences and points out that international conventions take around five years to change. For passports there is the 1944 Chicago Convention and for driving licences the 1968 Vienna Convention. Bring in the need for people to actually update their credentials and ten years would still very much be in the migration process.

Despite an unclear timeline, panellists agreed that digital identity would become the norm but it might not be a smooth ride. Natalie Smolenski, Senior Vice President, Business Development, Hyland Credentials said that as with many changes, there is always a long tail of dragging adoption – paper and plastic documents will still be issued, but as a smaller fraction. Once complication could be trust due to what she described as a “lack of trust in the state as an arbiter of legal identity.”

Lyle Charles Laxton believes blockchain is probably the strongest tool for identity going digital in terms of trust, but that this is not a transition for the short- to medium-term. Governments could use the technology at a national level, creating a “strong, clean” record of IDs.

“Effectively it’s moving your primary token into the digital ecosystem versus your primary token being your physical paper or card. Transitioning that nuance is effectively what digital ID is. But coupled with the certified copy certificate which ultimately will sit in digital form on your phone or paper-based certificate,” said Laxton, adding that of the three records, the digital record held centrally will take primacy over digital copies held on a physical device or paper or plastic cards. But ultimately it will be an issue of interoperability of systems rather than the hierarchy of formats.

Natalie Smolenski said that digital identity will have to be “platform agnostic” as even the digital versions will have to exist on physical items such as phones.

Kenichi Nakamura explained how stages of evolution prepare people for future stages of digital ID and situations where they will use it: “The identity document is one factor for the inspection. For example, passport verification. The border officer is looking at the people, asking where are you from, how many days are you staying – and he’s watching the behaviour of the traveler and also checking the passport. ‘Ok, you can go.’ And the next step – it’s replaced by the automatic gate… Now people are learning how they’ll be verified by an officer or machine. Maybe such experiences would change people’s minds about using identity documents.”

Beyond the implementation of various generations of digital identity, the speakers thought ahead to the future significance of certain lines of data currently collected. Laxton believes lines such as sex will still have to be captured for government service provision, but the visibility of this data “is where the argument sits.”

“I can imagine a world where gender is not a relevant identity category for benefiting from government services or anything else,” countered Smolenski. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

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