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Digital identity - any ‘one size fits all’ ID would be a mistake, warns policy conference

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton March 18, 2024
Moves to mandate reusable digital IDs seem to be growing in some parts of the world. But history teaches us this may not be a good thing, warned a Westminster conference.


Data privacy and protection should never be afterthoughts in digital identity systems, but instead integrated upfront their design. So said Ana Beduschi, Professor of Law at the University of Exeter, giving the keynote at a Westminster eForum on next steps for digital identities.

But she cautioned:

But these are not the only aspects we should be looking at. Coming out strongly from public engagement on building trust in digital identity systems is this idea of including broader equality and inclusiveness considerations in all debates around digital identity. 

It’s important for the general public to have this holistic view of digital identities – to get the idea that digital identity systems should not exacerbate existing inequalities in society. In other words, a digital identity should not make it even worse for individuals that could already be marginalized.

In short, digital ID systems should not leave anyone behind with a ‘one size fits all’, utility approach – which puts the risks on a par with AI automating historic bias. This is especially true when many High Street or Main Street services are shifting online, forcing millions to engage with digital systems, even if some would prefer not to. 

For both the financially and informationally poor, therefore, and for the digitally excluded and other marginalized communities – including any elderly or neurodiverse people who might find online processes challenging or stressful – digital ID services should understand and embrace their needs.

Professor Beduschi continued:

I think it's important to communicate all this in the field of digital identity. Digital ID systems should enshrine accountability. We should be looking at equality and questions of fairness – not just threats to privacy, but also broader and more holistic considerations of users’ rights. 

The second point I would make on these priorities moving forward, is to have clear provisions on transparency in complex mechanisms – transparency in how digital identity services will be provided, and what roles the public and private sectors would play. 

So, if something [technical] goes wrong – if an individual cannot have their identity verified, while using an app on their phones – what happens to their access to other services they would normally use? We need to think in terms of what harm might be done to such an individual, and how they would obtain proper redress.

Beduschi emphasized the need for effective governance and enforcement mechanisms, and the importance of communicating the Trust Framework to citizens – reassuring them that digital identities would not mean excessive surveillance or paternalism, perhaps.

On that point, the Digital Protection and Digital Information Bill is currently working its way through Parliament. Paul Knight, Partner at law firm Mills & Reeve, told delegates:

The Bill does anticipate the Trust Framework being reviewed in consultation with the Information Commissioner, and any other persons the Secretary of State thinks appropriate, at least every 12 months. And the approach that's been taken to date to the Alpha and Beta versions of the Trust Framework highlights the open and iterative process that, arguably, will be dictated by the legislation when it is passed.

But stepping back from the legal aspects, why does the UK need new digital identity systems at all, given that – on the face of it – little seems to prevent many people from accessing online and mobile services? The vendors’ view, at least, was put forward by Paula Sussex CEO of specialist provider OneID:

[Without it], we will not be a fully functioning digital economy. And this is not just a view espoused by me and my team: a three percent increase in UK GDP is McKinsey’s estimate.

Without digital identity embedded within our digital economy, which is becoming the largest part of GDP, we will fail to get that productivity gain we need.

An oranges and apples argument, perhaps. But if GDP and the digital economy are already so intimately related, with the latter growing in influence daily, what real-world problems would a new layer of digital IDs actually solve – especially given the risks of creating new ones that Professor Beduschi identified?

Sussex said:

One thing, of course, is tackling fraud. We believe that the UK payments environment would hugely benefit from wider use of digital identities. 

Another thing that is dearest to the hearts of many people is preventing online harms. We [OneID] are huge supporters of the Online Safety Act. And I was shocked during the consultation process to find that the average age at which children access adult material online – pornography to give it its real name – is thirteen.

Err on the side of caution

Adolescents seeking out porn is hardly a new problem in society, of course, but the amount and accessibility of adult material is. But are social problems like this, plus fraud, fake accounts, and cybercrime really so easily solved by just throwing technology at them?

A refreshingly different perspective was provided by Dr Eve Hayes de Kalaf of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London. Indeed, her presence suggested that the eForum increasingly embraces viewpoints other than those of technologists, lawyers, consultants, and politicians. She said:

I'm hoping – or expecting – that my opinion will be somewhat different, given that I'm approaching this from an academic standpoint, and by saying that history matters. 

It's important to remember where we've come from, and the direction in which we're going. Particularly when considering the speed at which digital identity systems have been designed, implemented, and rolled out, as well as the transformations these changes are bringing about in terms of governance, regulation, and their impacts on society as a whole.

What did she mean? She explained:

For over a decade, I've been examining the impact of global efforts to ensure that everyone everywhere has some form of legal ID as evidence of their legal personhood. And I've been looking at this, particularly, in alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, which aims to provide a legal identity for all, including birth registration, by 2030. 

So, we're seeing a real push to ensure that everyone in the world has some form of document to say who they are and confirm their identity. But just to underline something important: most of the world does not have access to an ID at present, and certainly not to a digital identity. So, a lot of these discussions ignore the bigger picture, which is that this is really not the norm.

But surely ensuring that everyone has a legal, documented identity can only be a good thing in terms of access to essential services? Not according to history, she said, or to identifiable trends in the world today. She added:

What has been interesting is looking at how national identification systems, bureaucracy, civil registration, and states have gradually transitioned into using digital methods to track, trace, and identify people. 

I'm not approaching this from a technical standpoint, but really from one that examines the broader societal impact of different forms of ID. And, indeed, the issues of trust and mistrust that quickly emerge from users of these systems.

So, I would like us to err on the side of caution, particularly when we consider the zeal with which we are rolling these systems out, and how we are making individuals, their families, and their pasts more identifiable and visible to the state.

Weaponizing ID

At this point, conservative thinkers tend to reach for phrases such as “the innocent have nothing to fear” or tap their maps and warn of mass, illegal immigration. But a lot of those arguments – emotive though they are at times of economic hardship – ignore the realities of how many people are displaced by wars, ethnic and religious conflicts, and more, or simply by economic and social disadvantage at home. 

So, was the Professor suggesting that digital IDs and a surveillance state are natural bedfellows? Not at all, she said:

These [digital ID] efforts can work very well and be extremely effective. But any ‘one size fits all’ model is something that, I fear, ignores the realities of large segments of the population. This is what I'd like us to think much more about. 

For example, recent findings from the public dialogue on trust in digital identity services, which was published by the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology, evidences the level of mistrust that many people have with regards to digital identity service providers and how they communicate with others. 

The report describes these as something hyperbolic, inauthentic, and dishonest. And citizens’ cynicism and mistrust make clear the need to ‘hang on to the human’, to humanize our approaches to digital identity. So, it's not just the question of not trusting the technologies that prevents people from engaging with them, but also the need for transparency.

She added:

This is also a trust issue because many groups of people, for complex reasons, simply do not own identity documents – and, of course, the UK itself does not have a national ID scheme.

The government observes that many such people have experienced homelessness, or recently left prison, or simply cannot afford to renew documents such as passports and driver’s licences – all areas where digital identity schemes might help. But that is a dangerous oversimplification, she said:

The reality is far more complicated, and something which is not being examined within these frameworks in a way that is meaningful or helpful. Some of the people who are being forgotten are, clearly, homeless people, but many are also migrants, particularly girls and women, or the children of migrants. 

Plus, transgender communities and people whose identities are outside of heteronormative constructs, and displaced persons, stateless persons, refugees, ethnic, religious, and/or national minorities. As well as people with disabilities, and vulnerable people needing additional support.

And that's not to forget the impact on the elderly, which is a huge conversation in itself – and something that the UK needs urgently to address.

She added:

Our recent in-depth study into the origins of the Windrush scandal [in which immigrants who had lived in the UK for decades were deported because they could not produce specific documents] showed that when users are left out of digital systems, and when they're blocked from accessing the NHS, from education, from renewing passports, obtaining their pensions, or getting unemployment benefits and other forms of welfare, then the impact can be catastrophic. 

So, the UK already has cases where identity schemes have not been working for some parts of the population.

Of course, such issues are not limited to the UK, she explained:

I recently returned from the World Conference on Statelessness, in Kuala Lumpar, where we heard numerous reports from around the world on how states are weaponizing digital systems to discriminate, target, negatively impact, and/or racially profile some ethnic minorities and other vulnerable people. 

We had discussions, for example, on the dire situation in India, the Rohingya crisis, numerous examples from across Africa, and my own work on the Dominican Republic. 

The fact is, the representation of a person's online self, and global efforts to provide every living person with their own unique identifier can – and we have numerous global examples – be implemented for nefarious and discriminatory purposes. And it is also leading to the strategic removal of certain voting groups, as well as targeting minority groups, all of which has become more prevalent since the COVID pandemic. 

So, my contribution today is really for us to heed warnings about the misuses and abuses we are witnessing, which are emerging in illiberal and fragile states, but also in the UK. 

Digital identity interconnects with other societal issues and problems, too, including the transition towards a cashless society. 

So, the question is, who are we locking out with these systems? And do we want to bring everybody into the same system – especially if it means many people's human rights being challenged, and groups being endangered?

My take

Excellent questions when technology zeal in search of ‘one size fits all’ solutions often causes more problems than it solves. Wherever you stand on the answers to such questions, a mature and sophisticated debate about social impacts is necessary.


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