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‘Ethics by design’ to ensure trust in digital identity: Sopra Steria

‘Ethics by design’ to ensure trust in digital identity: Sopra Steria

“Digital identity is not the end, is not the end goal that we’re aiming for. Rather like money, we don’t earn money for the sake of having money. We earn money for the things that money does for us,” Kevin Macnish, digital ethics consulting manager, Digital Ethics and Social Impact Consulting at Sopra Steria, told attendees of the recent at the second OIX (Open Identity Exchange) Identity Trust 2022 conference in London.

“The question is, what is the end we are aiming for?”

Macnish began his presentation with three “horror stories” on identification, beginning with the fatally efficient identity scheme devised by Jacobus Lentz in the occupied Netherlands that led to higher rate of the country’s Jews being killed by the Nazis than in other occupied countries.

Next to the Global South and the findings of ‘Paving a Digital Road to Hell? A Primer on the Role of the World Bank and Global Networks in Promoting Digital ID’ by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University, before heading to the contemporary Global North where horrors continue such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal where aspects of people’s identities were gleaned and used for micro-targeting in the Brexit vote and 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“Why am I giving these three horror stories? It’s not because I think digital identity is bad; quite the opposite. Ethics is not, I hasten to add, just about the bad stuff; it’s also about the good,” said Macnish, asking the audience to consider the end goal of digital identity and the role of trust.

Trust frameworks were a key part of the conference as they are the systems being devised in the UK (and effectively currently paused) and elsewhere to underpin digital identity ecosystems.

Macnish breaks trust into two categories.

“One is competence trust. So if I give you my data, I trust that you will be competent with that data, I trust that you will be able to look after that data, that it won’t leak, that you won’t abuse it in some way.”

The second is moral or ethical trust “where we trust that the person handling our data will use it for the right ends and so they won’t abuse it, they won’t sell it to a company that’s trying to manipulate elections.”

Digital identity schemes, such as those in ‘Paving a Digital Road to Hell?’ or in the UK where the seven million identity-challenged individuals may miss out on digital ID schemes, as may the ten percent without smartphones exacerbate existing societal exclusion, said Macnish.

“What we’ve seen in the Global South is that benefits traditionally fall to the people in power and the digital identity companies and not to the poorest or most excluded in society,” said the ethicist.

‘Ethics by design’

As the ethics of digital identity cover everything from government service access to being able to enjoy benefits such as more seamless travel, how can we manage the issues around trust and exclusion? By asking the right questions, and asking them at the right times.

To achieve Macnish’s concept of “Ethics by design,” the identity sector needs “to be thinking about ethics at the very beginning of the process and throughout the development of the process to ensure the solution that we have has the right guardrails in place to ensure that people are protected.”

A diverse range of potential service users need to be consulted in the development of digital identity to create transparency and ultimately to empower users “so they can see the genuine benefits of where we’re going,” says Macnish.

Developers and designers need to face accountability as otherwise there may not be the motivation to include ethics, he added. Impact assessments, more commonly associated with data protection, need to be applied to digital identity to understand how it affects people and how any negatives can be mitigated.

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