Lord Holmes discusses state of digital identity in the UK
Lord Holmes has been a Member of the House of Lords since 2013. He is also a member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, and is taking a leadership position on digital identity.
Biometric Update recently interviewed Lord Christopher Holmes of Richmond MBE about the state of digital identity in the UK.
Before his career in Parliament, Lord Holmes was a Paralympic swimmer, who has won a total of 9 gold, 5 silvers, and 1 bronze medals throughout his career.
“My interest in technology might appear somewhat unlikely at first glance,” he tells Biometric Update.
“Why would a professional swimmer turned commercial lawyer end up in the House of Lords with a focus on technology policy?”
According to Lord Holmes, the answer is connected to another of his core policy interests: diversity and inclusion.
“At the age of 14 I lost my sight and although the digital technology of the time was a little different to the tools we have at our disposal today. The experience of technology as an enabler was absolutely foundational.”
Today, Lord Holmes can access digital communications thanks to his ability to touch type, as well as the availability of screen reading software, but these technologies were much more rudimental a couple of decades ago.
“I was definitely an early adopter and I have a deep appreciation of the way digital technology can be a tool to enable and include,” he explains.
“This philosophy extends to the potential for digital technology to transform society. We are all experiencing the way the fourth industrial revolution is changing our lives, so many of us are walking around with a supercomputer in our pocket that does the most amazing things.”
While this is remarkable, however, Lord Holmes calls for policymakers and regulators to properly engage with the phenomenon, to ensure that the technology is harnessed for the good of humanity.
The state of digital ID adoption in the UK
Lord Holmes defines the state of digital ID adoption in the UK as a mixed bag.
“It is unfortunate that the government digital identity project, Verify, has not delivered on its ambitious aims but in February this year the Government published an initial ‘alpha’ version of a digital identity trust framework.”
The framework should reportedly bring clarity to the development of an ecosystem of digital ID schemes, according to Lord Holmes.
“Whilst it will undoubtedly benefit from further development and feedback from stakeholders in the private sector, it is very much to be welcomed as an important and necessary step towards establishing a digital identification system for the benefit of all.”
Discussing possible ways to efficiently develop the new digital ID framework, Lord Holmes mentions existing private sector standards such as anti-money laundering (AML) and open banking.
“While we might have been slow on digital ID, the UK has been at the forefront of an incredibly successful rollout of open banking.”
Lord Holmes goes on quoting Martin Wilson, CEO of Digital Identity Net, who claims that if the UK were to reuse bank-established existing identities (authenticated to AML standards) it would have almost entire market coverage from day one, with 97 percent of the adult UK population immediately having access through their own bank account.
“Another key issue that the framework and government work in this area must prioritize is building trust,” Lord Holmes explains.
“The UK public is understandably reluctant about the notion of government-issued identity cards and we risk the development of digital identification systems being tarnished by that resistance unless we can explain the benefits and build trust.”
A notable example of this is Baroness Warnock and her committee, which was set up in the 1980s to consider human fertilization and embryology.
“The remit covered policies, safeguards, and the social, ethical and legal implications and reassured the public that so-called ‘test-tube babies’ were not to be feared.”
Advocating for digital identity
Lord Holmes has been advocating for digital identity in Parliament for years.
“Most recently I took the opportunity of the Financial Services Bill to put forward a number of amendments in the digital space. If we want start-ups, and scale-ups, to flourish and fly, hopefully, to unicorn, in the UK, perhaps the most important play that the Government can make is to get all of the architecture — the underpins, the standards, the stage — so well set.”
To support this goal, Lord Holmes’ amendments included a mandatory regime for open finance, modernization of UK law to allow financial market infrastructure to process digital instruments, a review of access to digital payments, and several deals with digital ID firms.
“There is a real prize for the UK here, for us as individuals, corporate and all entities, to trade, to trust, to claim and verify, to lead when it comes to distributed digital ID.”
The Government eventually did not support the amendments, but according to Lord Holmes, it was still a useful debate.
“I am a relatively new member of the Science and Technology Committee but have previously co-authored House of Lords Select Committee Reports on Democracy and Digital Technologies, Artificial Intelligence, Digital Skills, Social Mobility, and Financial Exclusion.”
Lord Holmes is currently also co-chair of All-Party Parliamentary Groups on the 4th Industrial Revolution, AI, Assistive Technology, Blockchain, and Fintech.
Towards a more inclusive digital identity
Lord Holmes often refers to technology and inclusion as the ‘golden threads’ of his work.
“A good, effective, trusted digital ID system with mass adoption has the potential to provide far greater access to goods and services to all,” he tells Biometric Update.
According to Lord Holmes, the current digital ID ecosystem in the UK is flawed in more than one way.
“One example of [this] was demonstrated in terms of those denied access to healthcare services during the pandemic due to a lack of the right kind of available identity verification.”
For context, some online services required patients to identify themselves via credit-checking companies which were using electoral rolls to verify individuals.
Those not on the open register – often for safety or privacy purposes – could not be verified properly and were consequently refused health services.
“This disproportionately affected more vulnerable members of society,” Lord Holmes explains.
“Healthcare is also an excellent example of where access to government data sets could offer such incredible value, but people must be confident that the system is secure, transparent, and trusted,” he adds.
The characteristics of successful digital ID
When it comes to identification requirements, Lord Holmes believes the first question should always be, ‘What do you want?’
“You asked for my date of birth, but do you want my date of birth, do you need my date of birth, or do you just need to know that I am over 18? Do you just need to know that I am over 18 in a certain circumstance for a certain period?”
This is what is known as zero-knowledge proof and, according to Lord Holmes, the UK already possesses the technology to achieve this goal through a distributed digital ID.
In addition, a practical, functional digital ID should be characterized by the principles of self-sovereign identity (SSI).
“There are twelve guiding principles of SSI that help to explain how a distributed digital ID could work in all our interests; secure, decentralized, transparent, embedding equity and inclusion and protecting our privacy.”
Addressing privacy concerns
Digitalization brings about several comforts but is also often associated with privacy concerns.
In order to develop a digital ID ecosystem that does not infringe upon citizens’ privacy rights, Lord Holmes says the most important thing to do is to eliminate the presence of centralized and cumbersome systems.
“I believe that an ecosystem that embeds the principles of SSI would bring all the benefits; economic growth, social inclusion, reduced fraud, indeed the ease and comfort you mention, whilst protecting our privacy rights.”
Lord Holmes then goes back to the concept of zero-knowledge proof, highlighting that a privacy-focussed digital ID system should be able to provide reliable verification for the purposes required without revealing a surplus of personal information.
The future of digital identity in the UK
When asked about the future of digital identity in the UK, Lord Holmes replies very practically.
“I very much wish that I could predict the future but perhaps the best I can do is to share my personal approach, which is to focus on the fact that the future is now, and it is in our hands.”
A focal point in the future adoption of digital ID is that new technology is not a good or evil in and of itself, Lord Holmes explains.
“It’s all about how people choose to use it and that is the great challenge of our time and what I, and colleagues, are trying to do in Parliament. But we all have our role to play.”
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) are currently undertaking a deal of work on ID, according to Lord Holmes.
“The next iteration of the framework mentioned earlier is due to be published this summer and I look forward to that. It will be essential for that work to not only be underpinned by the twelve guiding principles but also to swiftly ‘sandbox’, stand up parallel proofs in specific sectors and proceed with pace.”
Lord Holmes concludes the interview by calling on digital ID companies in the UK to participate in the development of the new framework.
“I would also urge anyone working in this space in the private sector to engage with the government on this.”