Back in March, MPs gathered, in a socially distanced fashion, to debate the merits or otherwise of vaccination certificates. Steve Baker MP took to quoting The Prisoner in his attempt to dissuade his audience from even thinking about instituting a program of certification designed to identify who and who has not received a vaccination against Covid-19.
As one after another contributor rose to make their point, the focus was very much on how the decisions that were going to be made today would turn out to have much more serious and long-term consequences in the future.
But this is to view the issue through the wrong end of the telescope. In order to better understand the benefits and drawbacks of such a verification system, we have to look at the future and work backward to make the right decisions today. Looking at least ten years ahead, we can envision a world in which many countries, many citizens, and also many consumers use some kind of digital identity system. Here’s why.
In 2015 the United Nations committed itself to achieve seventeen sustainable development goals by 2030. The sixteenth of those goals relate to justice and, more specifically, clause 16.9 commits nations to “provide legal identity for all“. This is an important goal and we should remember that over one billion people in the world have no official form of identification to prove who they are, and therefore cannot access essential health and financial services that most of us take for granted in everyday life.
At the same time, more and more of those everyday services in modern life, are delivered digitally. Nations are acting as technology companies as they digitize public services, and technology companies are acting like nation-states owning newspaper media, offering schools to disadvantaged children, and increasingly operating in the field of telehealth. Someday soon, nearly all of our essential services will be digitized and therefore our access to them will require a digital authentication of some kind.
But we should not jump to the conclusion that a digital identity would necessarily be state-controlled. Plenty of countries do run centralized systems, linked to biometric data like a fingerprint, in the case of India; or an eighteen-digit code that combines everything from birth data to local authority data, in the case of China. The UK government has not in the past suggested any kind of centralized model for identity. In fact, it has gone out of its way to operate what is known as a federated model.
This federation consists of trusted “identity assurance services” such as your bank, the tax office, or the postal service who altogether provide a package of assurances, which gives citizens a sense of privacy and control. However it is a very complex system that needs updating and in 2020 the UK government announced it would be creating a Digital Identity Strategy Board to bring together numerous government departments from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care, to avoid anyone department developing a digital identity system in a silo of its own.
What is often forgotten is that there is a further model which is already taking place among a new generation and technology enthusiasts at large. More and more people are downloading identity apps onto their smartphones so they can manage their digital identities themselves. In Jersey, for example, more than half of 18-25-year-olds have already downloaded the Yoti app which they can use to prove their age at retail or hospitality establishments and festivals.
The way these apps work is that the user can release whatever identifying attribute they wish to share without jeopardizing all of their other personal information. In the past when an eighteen-year-old wanted to prove they were of drinking age they might have shown a driving license which states not only their age but the birth date and full address too. A decentralized digital identity app such as Yoti, or Evernym, or many others, will only release the identifying information that is relevant to the situation at the time.
Many of these companies are now working hard to deliver Coronavirus credentials, the digital proofs of vaccination. These are the gateway drug to a more complex digital wallet that one day will be full of credentials for university qualifications, travel passports, and visas, business cards or work badges, and of course your NHS number and many health records besides.
The truth is that all nations are becoming digital nations, and their digital citizens will require access to digital services. Decentralised, downloadable apps will ensure the user always has control of their digital credentials in a digital wallet, and ultimately has sovereignty of their digital identity too.
After all, no one seems to worry about the surveillance that an autonomous vehicle will bestow on each of us. These cars will be ordered online, arrive at our doorstep, they’ll know what time that was, who we picked up on the way, and what time we arrived at our destination. Likewise, not many people seem concerned about the surveillance of the self in Amazon’s new cashier-less store in Ealing that uses “just walk out” technology consisting of QR codes, sensors, and cameras.
The fact is there are many ways we are already monitored on the street, at work, and in our homes. Our digital identity is already out there it’s just not evenly distributed. Some people are not waiting for their governments to give them a digital identity, they have already taken control and created one of their own.
This piece first appeared on Conservative Home 19 March 2021