UK plans to make digital ID ‘as trusted as passports’

UK plans to make digital ID ‘as trusted as passports’

The British government is planning a governing body charged with making digital identities “as trusted as passports” by augmenting their legal status and introducing trustmarks for digital identity products from private sector providers.

The release reveals details and preparations which give a glimpse into how the future landscape for digital identity in the UK might look. Meanwhile, companies are investigating further biometrics for COVID-19 health passes and activists raising concerns over further requirements for their usage in the UK.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has launched the ‘Digital identity and attributes consultation’ on defining digital identity and establishing a body for digital identity as a separate type of identity:

“This consultation asks for views on how the digital identity system should operate, including proposals for a governing body which will be charged with making sure organisations follow government rules on digital identity.”

The more informative accompanying press release outlines the benefits of digital identity the future body would be hoping to achieve for the potential technology which could be a “phone app or other web-based service.”

A digital ID would make proving one’s identity quicker and cheaper than using physical credentials and would help protect privacy, for example by proving the holder is over the age of 18 without disclosing further details such as name. (Work is already underway in the UK to introduce age verification for pornography and social media.)

The UK does not have an existing digital ID nor a national ID card. People rely on driving licences and passports as well as schemes such as the CitizenCard which works in conjunctions with Yoti’s biometric identity app, popular among young people for getting into venues and buying alcohol. It is estimated that nearly 1 in 4 British people do not have traditional ID credentials.

The government release states that the body would have powers to issue an “easily recognised trustmark” to digital identity firms to certify that user data is handled safely. The UK’s Digital Infrastructure Minister, Matt Warman, is quoted as saying, “The plans laid out today will ensure people can trust the app in their pocket as much as their passport when proving their identity.”

At present there is a suggestion for new powers to allow digital identities to be built on trusted datasets such as the DVLA for driving licences and General Register Office for birth certificates. More broadly, there is a proposal to allow the checking against government sources for information such as age or address.

For those without existing identity documents, the release says: “if someone does not have access to an official document, such as a passport, they may be able to prove their identity digitally through another government service, or other means such as a vouch from a doctor or other trustworthy source.”

The release already mentions that businesses will have to report annually to the governing body on which users have been excluded from using their services.

“Digital identity use will not be mandatory and people will retain the option to use available paper documentation,” states the release, which later emphasized the government’s resolve: “Just as the government is committed to not making digital identities compulsory in the UK, it also wants to ensure that people in the future are not forced to use traditional identity documents, if these are not strictly required.”

Recent announcements such as the possibility that voters will need photo ID for future elections, an identity scheme from the Land Registry and (problematic) app for EU citizens to verify their identities could all provide further clues into the future of digital ID in the UK.

The release was published the same day that UK Prime Minister announced that nightclubs and large indoor venues would require a vaccine pass for entry from September, once all adults had been given the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. This was the day he called “Freedom Day.” The following day, Number 10 has refused to rule out that COVID passports might also be needed to enter pubs, reports The Guardian.

Such requirements would need parliamentary approval, but are adding to concerns among privacy campaigners that the use of health passes could involve a certain amount of mission creep leading to a national ID system.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Andrew Bud, the chief executive of iProov, which provides facial verification for the NHS COVID Pass, said “Like so many other things, COVID has driven the development of digital IDs forward by three to five years.”

The Telegraph reports that iProov alongside tech start-up Mvine was awarded £75,000 (US$102,000) by Innovate UK to investigate COVID vaccine certificates and that U.S. IT firm Entrust, which was given £250,000 ($340,000) to develop the software for the NHS COVID Pass has said that governments could “redeploy this effort into a national citizen ID programme.”

The paper also reports that Yoti has spent around £30,000 ($41,000) funding the all-parliamentary group on digital identity.

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