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Future fears and demands in Europe: the people want digital identity, but with guardrails

Future fears and demands in Europe: the people want digital identity, but with guardrails

Europeans understand some of the benefits and general inevitability of digital identity, but want control over their own data, rights and over how digital identity is embedded in life, according to a document being drafted that will form the official opinion on such matters for European Union Institutions.

Digital identity, data sovereignty and the path to a just digital transition for citizens living in the information society,’ a draft opinion by the EESC, serves various functions.

It takes into account a broad range of issues impacted by digital transformation – rights, freedoms, democracy, the environment, human relations, quality of life, discrimination, augmented reality, automation, mental health – to distil the parameters within which digital identity could work, as well as comment on legislation already underway.

The report could also potentially put the brakes on the digital ID project with more requirements. It explores the lack of a new social contract to deal with alleged life-changing negative effects of algorithms, bias, automation.

The summation of opinions recognizes that digital identity is for humans, who have a whole raft of needs, not to mention a planet that is still habitable. Beyond the impact on society, the draft also outlines the ways in which Europe is falling behind technologically.

What is an EESC ‘draft opinion’?

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) describes itself as “the voice of organised civil society in Europe.” Unlike other branches of the EU, it represents outside voices directly. Its opinions are intended to make EU policy both more effective and representative. The Parliament, Commission and Council are legally obliged to consult the EESC when passing new laws and send down proposals to the EESC.

However, this draft opinion is from its “own-initiative” work stream, being handled by the Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society (TEN). It is approaching the final stages, with the document collated by the rapporteur, Dumitru Fornea. Still to come are the amendments from study group members on this draft, then discussions to reach a consensus opinion within the section, working it through civil society groups before the whole EESC votes (mid-July) on whether it becomes an official opinion of the EU and sent to EU bodies.

What do Europeans think about digital identity and data sovereignty?

The draft opinion succinctly gathers together opinions from civil society on digital identity, big data, artificial intelligence and fairness and literacy across all aspects of digital life to form conclusions for future regulation in the bloc. Unlike many EU documents dealing with legislation, as a summary of the will of people whose common legislator is churning out the AI Act, Data Act, eIDAS 2.0, the Digital Services Act and so on, it is an easy eight-page read.

First, do no harm: “to maintain the security of humankind and the social fabric necessary for every individual to live a fulfilling life on this planet, we must ensure that the new tools of governance that are imposed with the digital and industrial revolution are not oppressive and do not make the daily lives of individuals conditional on compulsory incorporation in digital technological systems controlled in an undemocratic way.”

Next, given public institutions’ vulnerability to wealthy, technologically advanced non-state actors, it is time to step up at home: “the EESC believes that European technological sovereignty must be included in all future policy developments and the legislation must be supplemented with explicit and fully applicable regulations and common standards across all Member States.”

Data must also remain on EU soil. And the GDPR must be upgraded to include informed consent for the use of both personal and non-personal data.

Protection is needed too to ensure that life in the real world takes precedence over any other realities. “The EESC is convinced that digital identity, digital means of payment and incorporation into virtual and augmented reality platforms should remain tools that only complement the physical existence that we knew before the adoption of these technologies and should not completely and abusively replace other existential patterns that have been developed and perfected by humans over thousands of years of existence,” it states, reiterating elsewhere that there must be several layers of control to ensure a “human in command” approach.

The section devoted to AI notes that despite its potential contribution to climate and environmental goals, the energy consumption of the technologies must be monitored and digital companies will be expected to reduce carbon emissions, supposedly so that the real world still exists.

The European Commission must carry out risk assessments on issues such as energy demands, whether societies and economies can adapt, cybersecurity, and also digitization and automation’s impact on human interaction, relations, loneliness, mental health and declining cognitive and emotional intelligence.

The opinion could slow down some of the EU’s projects, like digital ID implementation, by requiring more checks and balances, such as the conclusion that “any initiative to integrate citizens into the European digital identity system should be based on impact studies and comprehensive sociological surveys. The final decision should only be made with the citizen’s informed and freely expressed consent.”

A little more stridently, the Committee is disappointed: “The EESC concludes that data security should be non-negotiable and is disappointed that the security of the future digital European wallet is not the top priority in the Commission’s legislative proposal.” It is also “totally against” private facial recognition databases, but, somewhat puzzlingly, “except for crime purposes.”

While there is appreciation for assurances that taking up an EU digital identity will be optional for individuals, there is concern that the “exclusion of certain citizens who will not opt for a digital ID has been downplayed,” and the committee “insists that the right to be forgotten and right to disconnect be clearly implemented in the EU legislation.” This also applies to an individual choosing to deactivate a particular component of digital identity.

Along with safeguards, the opinion also states that digital identity and AI must also be useful. It should lead to efficiencies, improvements in the credit market and public service delivery. It must not lead to social scoring and nor become a tracking tool, or open up citizens to more fraud.

Provision against phishing and fraud is another disappointment for the EESC in that “the security of the future digital wallet is not the most important issue in the EC proposal establishing a framework for a European Digital Identity.”

Investment in skills and technology required

The Committee reminds the reader that the latest research found that as of 2020, only 56 percent of the EU population has basic digital skills, and calls for more help. (Browsing the internet and using Microsoft Office does not count.)

In terms of investment in technology, the bloc is slipping behind. For example, the EU accounts for only 7 percent of global investment in AI and blockchain technologies.

More spending will be needed, along with all of the assessments.

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