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Tony Blair Institute calls for decentralized government-issued digital ID for all

Tony Blair Institute calls for decentralized government-issued digital ID for all

By Chris Burt and Frank Hersey

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change is calling for a change of course in the government’s digital ID program to provide a comprehensive digital identity, rather than approve various solutions under different schemes. The UK press is expressing confusion about the proposal.

A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain’ is a joint report presented by the institute’s namesake and William Hague, who served as Leader of the Opposition while Blair was Prime Minister, as well as a former Cabinet Minister and Leader of the House of Commons. They are not named among the report’s seven authors, however.

The BBC and Sky News are among outlets reporting that a new report calls for digital ID cards for all, invoking past controversies but without clearly referring to the report – which does not include the word “card.”

What it does call for is a government-provided “secure, private, decentralised digital-ID system for the benefit of both citizens and businesses. A well-designed, decentralised digital-ID system would allow citizens to prove not only who they are, but also their right to live and work in the UK, their age and ownership of a driving licence. It could also accommodate credentials issued by other authorities, such as educational or vocational qualifications.”

This sounds similar to what the UK government is already working on with systems like the DSIT Digital Identity Programme, crossed with the ideas proposed by Lord Christopher Holmes and others. The difference is that it would be a unified platform issued by the government.

This could help clear up the massive amount of confusion among businesses trying to use the schemes in place today.

An editorial in the Independent is not thrown off by debates from 15 years ago, but expresses doubt over the capability of the government to build or secure such a system.

Silkie Carlo of Big Brother Watch likewise tells the BBC that the proposed digital ID system “would be one of the biggest assaults on privacy ever seen in the UK.”

The word “privacy” appears only once in the document, which along with the predictable association with ID cards calls into question how aware the report’s authors and endorsers are of the context in which they are making the argument.

When asked about people’s fears of ID systems and tech errors, Blair told the BBC: “If you look at the biometric technology that allows you to do digital ID today, it can overcome many of these problems. And by the way, the world is moving in that direction. I mean, countries as small as Estonia and as large as India are moving in that direction – or have moved.”

What is actually proposed

The report largely focusses on how UK politics must recognize the potential of technology.

“We’re in the fastest period of innovation in the history of human civilization,” said Lord Hague in the prime slot of the BBC’s flagship news show, Today (from 2hrs 15min 30 secs), alongside Sir Tony. “Artificial intelligence, climate tech, bio tech: the UK has to be one of the leaders in that field.”

“Other countries are forging ahead,” said Hague and in order for the UK to keep or get ahead, it “has to redesign the state around technology.”

The country needs to be “using data as a competitive asset,” according to Hague, as the country looks at the bigger picture of embracing change: “This is what politics has to be about; not just small variations in tax and spending, it’s about gripping this future.”

Most of the report is distantly or unrelated to digital ID. Principal recommendations include a government science and technology agenda, building foundational AI infrastructure, a specialized procurement body, public R&D spending, more tech in education, and stronger global partnerships.

The proposed digital ID is one of the items under the AI infrastructure umbrella, and is confined to government interactions.

The short section on digital identity contrasts typical online interactions with the state of government records, and makes the case for digital IDs to reside on “personal devices.”  Not cards.

It goes on to state that as the ground source of truth for identity documents, government should supply digital IDs, “(r)ather than creating a marketplace of private-sector providers to manage the government-issued identity credentials of citizens.”

This would make access to goods and services easier, cheaper, and more secure, according to the report. It would reduce how many people miss out on entitlements, and help the government move proactively, reducing administration for all along the way.

Estonia’s X-Road is referred to as a good example of the “once only” principle, and equal status for physical and digital IDs is recommended.

There are no other references to digital ID in the 64-page document.

iProov and OIX leaders respond to Blair Institute report

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