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Canadians weigh in on national digital ID with urgency, trust, fear

Canadians weigh in on national digital ID with urgency, trust, fear

Opinion writers and industry figures in Canada offered a range of thoughts on the country’s inclusion of a national digital ID that would authenticate residents with biometrics to access government services and verify their identity. The spectrum ranged from a desire to push the country forward on the technology to the importance of first having a foundation of trust, and the argument that it is a slippery slope to something more frightening, showcasing the ongoing discussion over national digital ID secured with biometrics.

In an article for The Future Economy, Iliana Oris Valiente, managing director and Canada innovation lead at Accenture, and Joni Brennan, president of the Digital ID and Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC), maintain that Canada must catch up on digital ID to stay competitive with the rapidly evolving economy and be inclusive for government service access.

Quoting from the World Bank’s ‘GovTech Maturity Index: The State of Public Sector Digital Transformation,’ Valiente and Brennan say that Canada is one of the 43 countries named as a GovTech leader but also a laggard on the adoption of a unique national digital ID system. The two authors write that a national digital ID will boost service quality, system-wide innovation, and drive financial and social inclusion by opening access to healthcare, education, and other government programs to citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the benefit of a digital ID, they say, as it would have allowed citizens to access government services without needing in-person visits or access the tangle of federal agencies with just one ID. “Digital ID empowers the individual, for the benefit of the collective,” Valiente and Brennan say.

The article cites the DIACC’s research that shows the potential value of trusted digital ID to Canadians could be as much as CA$15 billion (approximately US$11.7 billion), or 1 percent of the GDP.

The two make note of the federal government’s roadmap for digital ID, pointing to progress like the mention of a digital ID strategy for the first time ever in a mandate letter from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Treasury Board Minister, Mona Fortier. They also find hope in Canada’s new Chief Information Officer, Catherine Luelo, who has identified digital ID as a top priority, and provincial initiatives in provincial digital ID.

Luelo told a crowd of the ​IdentityNORTH Spring Workshop that Canada is “falling behind” on digital ID earlier in April.

“We can do this. The technology is straightforward, but we need to answer the World Bank’s call and map out a more ambitious plan. Actions we take to fast-track digital ID will pay many dividends down the road,” Valiente and Brennan conclude.

The article from Valiente and Brennan also emphasizes that, “we must earn public trust by creating tools that enable personal data transparency and control.”

Digital IDs trust deficit

It is a thought shared by Mark Lambert, senior managing director of the Canada Federal Public Service Lead at Accenture. In his opinion piece published in National Newswatch, Lambert says that trust is a prerequisite to a national digital ID strategy. Yet trust has been declining in Canada, Lambert argues, citing a survey from Edelman Trust Barometer and the low adoption rate of the COVID Alert app.

Much like Valiente and Brennan, Lambert suggests that the Canadian government could build trust in a digital ID program by ensuring that citizens can trust that their privacy and data is safe and used only when consent is provided. He also believes that cooperation between all sectors and jurisdictions, and bridging disparate provincial digital ID strategies with something like the Pan-Canadian Trust Framework would be a significant step toward the goal.

The opinions on trust largely mirror a survey from the DIACC that showed a large majority of Canadians support digital IDs, but a similar number also wanted control over their personal data used by the federal and provincial government.

Despite the promise of a better, more inclusive future with digital ID, Anthony Furey of the Toronto Sun believes it is a harbinger for a worrisome trend and urges caution with its adoption.

Furey expresses little faith that provincial digital IDs will hold to their word that they will not track their users. He also quotes Ann Cavoukian, executive director of the Global Privacy and Security by Design Centre and former privacy director of Ontario, who told him that, “I would never want to get a digital ID,” due to the risk of hacking and vulnerabilities to identity theft and accessing of data by third parties.

There is also apprehension over a government report from early 2020 that makes mention of “biodigital convergence” and refers to digital implants in human bodies. The column positions the paper as a policy suggestion, rather than its stated purpose as an examination of an observed trend. Furey reasons there should be vigilance over digital ID and believes there will be mission creep, saying that Saskatchewan’s pause on provincial ID may be the correct decision until there is more debate and a consensus over what a digital ID would entail.

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