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Biometrics are the future of decentralized identity, says Tech5’s Rob Haslam


Biometrics and digital ID

Rob Haslam, strategy consultant at Tech5, believes that far from being opposed, biometrics will underpin the increasing use of decentralized identity applications.

A discussion between Haslam and Biometric Update started with his participation in Identity Week, explaining how the debate around the central idea of decentralized ID was very much present at the event.

“Clearly that is very much in people’s minds at the moment, in industry and government. It was interesting to see the tech providers, and representatives from governments, UK and overseas, exchanging ideas.”

According to the strategy consultant, there was general agreement on the principles around privacy, giving back control to holders, and everything that a decentralized identity should theoretically be.

“There’s definitely increased awareness and increased interest from governments all over and it’s surprising. It’s not just the governments in the developed world that are known to be very focused on digital identity and everything that touches it [but also] developing countries.”

Discussing the adoption of digital technology by developing countries, Haslam says that while some westerners have the idea that developing countries are often technologically behind, that is not necessarily true.

“The classic example is fixed phone lines. In countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, fixed phone lines never made it to outlying areas, villages, rural areas, etc. They just don’t bother building those fixed phone lines now because mobile is leapfrogging.”

Because of this, Haslam believes many of these countries will jump straight to digital ID, potentially skipping the smartcard move altogether.

“I think it’s much more about the fact that you can do so much more with the available technologies than you could before, do these things much cheaper and deploy a lot quicker.”

Why decentralized identity

Making the case for decentralized solutions, Haslam says he thinks biometrics as a means of binding an identity to a credential and to an individual is gaining traction.

“You’ve got all the usual caveats around security and the concerns that individuals have and that governments have, but essentially it’s recognized I think largely that biometrics is the only way we really have of making this whole thing work.”

At the same time, Haslam says not all solutions necessarily contemplate biometrics in the same way as Tech5 does.

“We have a very clear idea of the importance of biometrics. I talked about this in the presentation that I gave […] at Identity Week. It pertains to things like databases of biometric and other personal information being what our CTO calls ‘honeypots.’”

In addition, Haslam explains, centralized identity repositories are at the center of many of the recent widespread hacking scandals around the world.

“If you can decentralize identity […] you don’t have to ping a central database for verification and therefore create that opening for criminals and fraudsters. Then you go some way to limiting the security risks that otherwise you might have with these large, very attractive honeypots of data.”

According to Haslam, data privacy also plays an important role in decentralized identity applications.

“Let’s take my driving license. I get my driving license here in the UK from DVLA. And essentially that tells somebody who needs to know, like a police officer, that I’m eligible to drive, and who I am. And it may be used in different cases, for example for renting a car, but you could argue: why should DVLA know that I’m renting a car in Michigan? There shouldn’t be that concern.”

If done the right way, Haslam believes that the digitalization of driving licenses could solve this issue, allowing individuals to share only the data they need for a specific purpose.

TECH5’s digital ID strategy

Haslam began consulting with Tech5 as a Strategic Adviser in July 2020 to define a three-year strategy.

“I would say that the digital ID strategy now has become quite firmly set, and as a result of that we have a very healthy pipeline of opportunities, and we’re talking to governments and other customers in all regions of the world.”

Haslam adds the strategy focused particularly on the idea of decentralization for privacy and giving users control over their data.

It also comprised efforts in the development of offline and online verification solutions, and the ability to produce a digital credential which works the same way whether it is printed or shown on a screen.

“All of these things are resonating incredibly strongly with a huge community of people and not just in national ID, but in banking, healthcare, education, transport, payments, you name it.”

Proof of this, Haslam says, is Tech5’s recent win in the NPCI (National Payments Corporation of India) PayAuth Challenge.

“That’s just one sort of validation that we’re on the right track because they are now moving to a proof of concept where everything we’ve been saying has been put into practice and proven out in the real world. So that’s the digital ID side,” he explains.

“I think it’s fair to say […] that our overarching strategy now needs to accelerate, and there’s a reason for that, which is the recent investment in Tech5 by [Yinda Infocomm].”

The Yinda Infocomm $10M investment

According to Haslam, the recent capital injection from Yinda Infocomm, which is now Totm Technologies Limited, shows the enormous amount of confidence in Tech5, its vision, and its prospects in what he believes to be a booming market.

“We’re all well aware of the statistics that show the sort of value the market is expected to reach in the next five years,” Haslam explains. “So […] with these funds that we’ve got to support this rapid growth is really important for us to deploy the right areas to get the best return for ourselves and our investor.”

In terms of specific technologies, Haslam says Tech5 is investing much of the new funds in innovations they were already developing pre-pandemic, including the company’s three core biometric modalities of face, finger, and iris.

“We do this in order to maintain our very favorable NIST rankings, where we probably punch way above our weight in competition […], but we’re also looking into others such as voice recognition, which we think could be a promising area.”

Of course, Haslam explains, Tech5’s primary focus remains on using these technologies to create decentralized solutions, and to make sure they are also accessible to individuals who do not own a smartphone.

“So this credential can be read without a smart card reader or all of the expenses that that entails.”

Tech5 will also invest some of the new funding in the further development of its recently released contactless fingerprint technology, T5-AirSnap Finger, which uses smartphone cameras to capture, extract, segment, and generate templates from the fingers without needing a fingerprint reader.

“Now of course that’s quite a seismic innovation in the industry, which has traditionally spent millions of dollars a year on fingerprint readers, and now we have a technology that allows you to bypass those readers, using smartphones instead.”

All in all, Haslam says Tech5’s strategy will maintain a deep focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“That will help us maintain our market leadership, and to innovate, always drawing on our deep biometric heritage, both in core biometric solutions, and in digital ID, and supporting the idea that we believe biometric solutions should be inclusive, they should work online and offline, and they should support the inclusion for people with smartphones, and without.”

Thoughts on the European Digital Identity

The EU Commission has recently proposed a new framework for the creation of a European Digital Identity that would introduce interoperable EU digital IDs.

“Obviously, we’re watching this one with interest,” Haslam says. “The proposed framework, which talks about the development of digital wallets which can store data credentials and attributes we see as, of course very promising, but also quite ambitious.”

Haslam believes the new framework is essentially an overhaul of the eIDAS regulations from 2014, which according to him had certain gaps in it around electronic ID, quite limited take-up, and too much emphasis on cross-border services at a time when only a few key public service providers in the EU allowed cross-border authentication with a digital identity system.

“Clearly, the digital landscape is changing incredibly rapidly, even more so with everything that’s been going on in the last 18 months.”

This change, Haslam says, drives the need for this framework. However, the strategy consultant believes there is a danger that the EU could be viewed as trying to get control back from the tech giants.

Haslam also thinks the framework does not contain enough details about how digital wallets can store and safeguard user data.

“But perhaps this is reflected in timescales where they’re talking about pilots by September/ October next year.”

Still, Haslam says Tech5 is quite interested in the part of the framework that talks about biometric authentication for accessing wallets, and in particular the method having the highest level of security for personal data using biometrics to authenticate.

“But of course, all of that requires organization and security measures. So, in conclusion, I think, exciting, but ambitious, it will be interesting as well to see if industry ideas are allowed to flourish and to ensure that standards allow these ideas and innovation, rather than being too prescriptive.”

What solutions are more suited to decentralization?

According to Haslam, most types of projects would benefit from being decentralized.

“So definitely the largest schemes like the national ID, since it touches on all aspects of our lives, and the use cases and the verification requirements are huge and very widespread.”

But Haslam also mentions banking, explaining how decentralization brings in more security, as well as healthcare for access to medical records.

However, Haslam also believes that closed-loop projects could more likely continue using centralized solutions.

“Possibly, a smaller closed-loop project could be more centralized,” Haslam says. “Let’s take an example of being verified to take an exam, […] the results of that examination and the credential that you get given might need to be verified by employers or professional bodies, etc, so then you get into the widening of that, and digital ID makes that possible, but a decentralized approach makes it more secure and private.

“I guess the answer is, the more closed-loop things are, the more they can be central but the more digital ID becomes the norm, the more that becomes a driver for it to be decentralized in terms of the future,” Haslam explains.

The future of decentralized solutions

According to the strategy consultant, the future of biometric decentralized solutions needs to be around building ecosystems that bring more value to all parties.

“So not just to the issuer, for example, not just the verifiers but everybody, including the holder.”

Because of this, future solutions should enable new use cases, but at the same time, promote inclusion.

“And then the network effect is very interesting, with decentralized solutions, the more people are using them, the more benefit people see and the more use cases get developed for.

“And I think it’s really about getting away from the traditional understanding of identity being something that the government grants you and then controls the use of.”

At the same time, Haslam explains, it is important for the future of these solutions that the overarching initiatives do not stifle innovation.

“And as we gradually move away from physical documents — we all recognize it’s not going to happen tomorrow — to something digital that pervades more and more aspects of our lives as that gets more fragmented, it becomes all the more important that we can trust it.

“And so I think, a move towards decentralized ID, if done correctly, is a way that we can all have more trust in it,” Haslam concluded.

This post was updated at 4:37pm Eastern on November 22, 2021 for clarity and to note Yinda Infocomm’s rebrand.

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