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"Look, I could be wrong about this, but..." - Tony Blair makes the case for a digital ID scheme (again) in a post-COVID-19 world

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 10, 2020
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is putting his weight behind another form of government digital ID scheme. Will the COVID-19 pandemic be enough to overcome objections this time around?

Tony Blair
(via Tony Blair Institute for Global Change)

COVID-19 lockdowns can be safely lifted to return economies to some form of normality, but governments will have to get to roll out a digital ID scheme built on a "user-centric model of digital identity that puts individuals in control and protects their privacy”.

That’s the recommendation from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, the policy thinktank set up by the former British Prime Minister following his departure from office. It comes in an 18-page briefing document - Digital Identity: The Missing Piece of the Government’s Exit Strategy - which essentially argues the case for so-called immunity passports as a mechanism to free up people currently held in lockdown or inhibited by health concerns.

The paper has been authored by the Institute’s Andrew Bennett, but it was Blair himself who was doing the media profile raising himself yesterday, climaxing in a keynote (virtual) appearance at the COGX conference, where he declared:

What we're saying in this paper is you can create a digital ID today that is much more easily protected, so you can deal with a lot of the privacy and surveillance issues that worry people. It's a natural evolution of the way that we're going to use technology in any event, to transact daily life. This COVID crisis gives an additional reason for doing that.

Look, I could be wrong about this, but when I look at, for example, how you re-start businesses, how you re-start international travel, [you need to know] people’s disease status. For example, have they been tested, what is the result of that test, have they had the disease, do they have the disease? Unless you're able to record some of this data in a way that people can use, it's going to be difficult to go back to anything like a near normal in things like transport. So, if you're going to start international travel again, how do you do that, unless people can be easily tested and have some record of that test?

He added:

I think there's always been a good case for introducing some form of digital ID, but I think that case is even more powerful today.

Modernity’s calling - again!

As he observed himself, this is far from being the first time Blair has indicated a leaning towards ID card schemes. During his time as Prime Minister, he attempted a few times to legislate for their introduction into UK society, nominally and at varying times as part of the war on terror or to tackle identity fraud or to stem illegal immigration.

But perhaps the most telling justification was a plea to proceed because it was, for some reason, owed to modernity. That was the same sort of thinking that led to the commissioning of the NHS National Programme for IT following an hour long pitch. The end result of that was the single worst public sector IT project in UK history, running for over a decade with little discernible outcome other than lawsuits against the British Government from US and Japanese systems integrators and a bill for the UK taxpayer last seen heading north of anything up to £14 billion and beyond (depending on how you count the final cost and who you listen to).

Blair’s ID card ambitions never saw the light of day during his time in Downing Street, but the potential for immunity passports - or health passports as they’re increasingly referred since the World Health Organization signalled its disapproval of the other term - puts the question of some form of digital ID-centric solution back on the table.

What’s different this time is the driver is COVID-19 - non-political (in theory!) - and the need for countries to ‘release’ their populations from lockdown while staying on top of a potential new spread of the virus. To that end, the idea of immunity passports has been flagged up as a possible solution, albeit one that’s met with a considerably mixed reception, not least over the sort of data security and privacy concerns that have also blighted contact tracing app efforts.   

The IGC briefing paper attempts to anticipate and counter most of the main objections. What’s being suggested is built around the idea of a biometrically-secured app on a mobile phone that stores digital credentials with users “in control” of their privacy. Subjects would present their digital ID when being tested for COVID-19 and a unique credential based on the result of that test would then be sent to the app and could be presented to third parties when required. Both the digital identity platform and the mobile credential would remain independent of any digital contact-tracing efforts, unless users opt in to link their data.

That’s the relatively straightforward aspect. It would need primary legislation from central government to put in place the necessary governing framework, but at a national level that could be achieved if the political intent is there. Where the ICG gets far more ambitious is its declaration that there should also be agreement on “internationally interoperable standards for credentials”. That obviously runs head on into vastly differing national attitudes to privacy and data protection and getting, for example, Germany, the US and the UK all on the same page.  In other words, this is where ambition meets idealistic aspiration.

Never undersold

But then Blair has never been a politician knowingly to undersell the ‘big vision thing’ and nothing much has changed on that front given his other comments at COGX:

My central belief is that the technology revolution is the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. In other words, it changes everything. It changes the way we live, the way we work, the way we think.  It changes our business, changes our commerce, changes our social interactions. The risk is that you have this divide between the world of the change makers  - those with technology, innovation and creativity making the change -  and the policy makers - those in politics and my profession. There's a great gulf of misunderstanding between the two and you've got to bridge that, because a lot of these technology solutions will be extremely important for us to solve the practical problems, not just of COVID, but of the new world of work in the economy that we're going to see developing in the next few years.

Technology needs to be front and center of everything as the post-pandemic period takes shape, he argues, but this can be seen as an opportunity for disruptive change:

There are many people who will find when they go back out into the new economic landscape, when the government support systems stop….businesses that have been changed forever.  I can't see the travel, tourism, hospitality industries coming back very fast. I think bricks-and-mortar retail has probably had its day, certainly in its present form. So you're going to, in any event, have a necessity to be re-equipping people with what they need.  So make it into a virtue and create a situation in which [we] bring people into government, who've got understanding of technology and are going to be able to devise the right solutions because they understand the way the world of work is going to change.

That changing of the tech credentials of government is going to be crucial, he suggests:

A lot of people in business, who are running their businesses, they understand they've got to change because otherwise frankly they go out of business. What you find in government is the toughest things are one, getting things done. You know people talk, talk, talk, but actually getting implementation in place is really difficult. Secondly, governments don't like change. Bureaucracies have a genius for inertia, but not for momentum to change. Therefore what is really important is the government also to be thinking, ‘How do we reform our education system so that young people are taught differently and taught creatively?’.

How do we, for example, change our healthcare system? We’ve probably had more technology innovation in our healthcare system in the last 10 weeks than that in the previous 10 years. Maybe it's a slight exaggeration, but nonetheless it makes the point that we have been driven by necessity in these last weeks to do things differently. Let's see how we continue to do things differently. Are we really saying that we want to go back to face-to-face consultations with doctors, except when we really need to, rather than carry on with what we we've discovered during the course of this, which is that you can do consultations online?

If those sort of questions are not taken on board, he says, the ‘new normal’ will see business moving fast while government goes too slow. While many would, with some justification, argue that this is pretty much the pre-COVID status quo, Blair’s thesis appears to be that the virus outbreak has finally forced policy makers to accelerate their behaviors and provides a platform for long term change:

We should put a huge focus on government and business working together. We're going to have to understand that there are a lot of issues where there will be a strong desire for social change and we need to make that social change happen in the best possible way. I think there will be far less tolerance of inequality and injustice. People will want to resolve some of the questions around that, but you've got to resolve them with policies that work.  If I was back from government now I would be really focusing it all around this technology revolution and how you make each individual component of government and the relationships with business work in an effective way.

My take

"Look, I could be wrong about this..."

Blair's last comment about the technology revolution will forgivably raise a cynical eyebrow among those of us who tracked his pet IT project in the NHS for years as it lurched from one ill-considered decision to another, with no clear strategic foundation other than a politician being dazzled by the sheer bleeding edge ‘modernity’ of it all.  For being the prime mover behind this shameful debacle - eventually put out of our misery once he was out of office - Blair might well be cautious about any claimed tech credentials.

And what he talks about in terms of immunity passports and privacy is underpinned by the question of user trust. How you stand on the relationship between trust and Tony Blair will be a personal/political reaction for everyone. For those of us who were there, the journey from his first election night win, when things could only get better, through to his final stepping down, when things had gotten no better and arguably worse in many regards, is a long one. 

Where he is completely correct is around the need for more policy-makers in charge who can boast tech and digital savvy, a shortcoming mirrored in legislatures around the world to greater or lesser degrees. Coming out of COVID-19, we’re hearing time and again about how the pandemic has compressed and accelerated digital transformation thinking and practice from years to months in the private sector. Could the same phenomenon occur in the public sector?  The farce around the UK government’s roll out of its chosen contact tracing app doesn’t provide much room for optimism, but then again other national regimes have been more successful with their efforts under different political leaders.

Still, the problem with what Blair is saying about the shortcomings of government is that they are the same sort of criticisms that have been made for years and years. In his own term in office, his government chased all the latest bright and shiny tech things, pretty standard practice for administrations of all political complexions. Previous attempts at serious, productive disruption have been met with what I’ve referred to before as the political will meeting the administrative won’t, with one inevitable loser.  Will it have taken a global pandemic to have changed that at last?

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