UK government digital identity plans met with mixed response

By Ellen Daniel

The news that the UK government could soon issue digital identities to British citizens has been met with mixed responses from the industry.

Earlier this week, the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, along with the Cabinet Office, announced it was exploring the introduction of digital identities as a means for individuals to securely verify their identity online.

Under the proposals,which follow the creation of a Digital Identity Unit last year, individuals would be assigned a digital identity that could be used for tasks such as buying age-restricted items on and offline, or registering at a new GP surgery.

According to the announcement, the UK government plans to update laws on identity checking so that digital identity could be used “as widely as possible”, overseen by a new Digital Identity Strategy Board.

The Times reported that these plans are part of Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister Dominic Cummings’s aims to “revolutionise the use of data across government” after it emerged that 1.4 million people that made a claim for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme had no prior digital identity credentials.

The government will now consult on “developing legislation for consumer protection relating to digital identity, specific rights for individuals, an ability to seek redress if something goes wrong, and set out where the responsibility for oversight should lie”. It is also exploring how secure checks could be made against government data.

Privacy concerns over government digital identity plans

Although Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman has said that online digital identities have the potential to add billions to the economy, as well as having the potential to reduce fraud, the proposals have been met with concern from some organisations.

Privacy non-profit Big Brother Watch tweeted that digital identities would “create a centralised database of sensitive records that could span health, tax, travel, welfare + biometric data about each and every one of us” and that it will “fight these plans tooth and nail”.

Scotland Director at Open Rights Group told The Times that “if the public don’t trust that their data is going to be secure, they are not going to engage with the system now matter how seamless or frictionless”.

A step in the right direction?

However, Matt Lock, UK Technical Director, Varonis believes that the exploration of digital identities is a “step in the right direction”:

“Today’s announcement is good news and a step in the right direction for the development of digital identity services in this country. The reference to governance and standards is welcome but more questions need to be answered before these services are ready to offer the general public.

“Questions include how is the government proposing to ensure everyone has the same access to broadband regardless of where they live or their income, how will these services be protected, what measures will be in place to ensure data communications between government agencies are properly secured and how will the IT ecosystem be managed so that administrators have the visibility they need to prevent the possibility of any personally identifiable information (PII) being breached or misused.”

The issue of national identity cards has long been contentious, with the UK government scrapping its identity card scheme in 2011. However, in the context of ever increasing digitisation, some individuals from the industry have welcomed the potential introduction of digital indentities.

Lars Rensing, CEO of enterprise blockchain services provider Protokol said:

“The digitisation of society, along with the challenges governments and businesses face when protecting consumer data, means that creating secure Digital IDs is more important than ever. With many countries such as Italy, Belgium and South Africa issuing ‘eIDs’, this development would have likely come, even without Covid-19 prompting the UK government to take action.

“Demand for more secure digital identities has been growing in recent years, with the notion of self-sovereign identities gaining traction following increasing data privacy concerns, most recently in relation to the Covid-19 track and trace apps. Blockchain, with its innate security, is emerging as the perfect solution for protecting and managing personal data. Digital identities powered by blockchain technology go beyond the public simply being able to verify their identities online without fear of hacking, consumers can decide exactly how much data they share in any given interaction.

“Businesses should take note here. While the government may seek to create these IDs initially, there is an opportunity for forward-thinking companies to diversify their offering and unlock new revenue streams based on the consumer data they are already obliged to collect. These businesses can offer identity-as-a-service solutions underpinned by blockchain technology, which can hand the power of a consumer’s digital identity back to them, while simultaneously making it easier, less risky, and less time and resource intensive for the company to manage. Digital identities, identity-as-a-service and self-sovereign identities will revolutionise the way that personal data is managed, and companies that act quickly will be able to find innovative new ways to become indispensable.”


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