Collaboration is the Handmaiden of Innovative Digital Identity

Digital identity is playing an increasingly ubiquitous part in our everyday lives.  As more and more previously standalone devices and services are brought online, as the Internet of Things grows, consumers and businesses alike need to verify identities in an ever-multiplying array of contexts.  And, as the trusted custodians of some of our most personal information – and of global network infrastructure with unrivalled security credentials – mobile network operators are the natural gatekeepers of digital identity.  In developing markets, in particular those in Asia Pacific, the avenues for development are now growing thick and fast.

Our seminar on Future of Digital Identity in China at MWC19 Shanghai last month, then, took place at an exciting juncture of time and place.  In Asia Pacific alone, it’s forecast that by 2025 there will be 11 billion devices brought online, opening countless new channels of connectivity for everyday consumers – and with them vast opportunities for operators and their partners to enable access and unlock the value potential at hand.

Richard Cockle, Head of Identity at the GSMA, opened the session with some reflections on the state of the regional market. “Here in Asia Pacific, one recent piece of research revealed that 76% saw security as the key enabler and most important part of their online experience –which actually really surprised me! I assumed it’d be convenience, but that trailed at 21%.”  It’s little wonder that users are concerned about cybersecurity in this part of the world, though, however striking the proportions emerging from this research may be: a joint report by GMA Intelligence and McAfee found that cybercrime cost around $70 billion in China last year, and memories of major data breaches affecting millions of people are always fresh.

Digital identity isn’t just about keeping us safe, though – it’s fundamentally about unlocking service capabilities, and enabling new and better ways of living and working.  In China for instance, 67% of citizens lack a substantial credit history, which of course hinders their attempts to access credit to move their life plans forward. This is to the detriment not only of the many individuals involved, but also the aggregate social and economic effect on society at large.  Digital identity innovation can provide myriad ways of solving these challenges, and progress is likely to be swift in the near future.

The GSMA’s Head of Identity set out how digital identity is playing a key role in the growth of eCommerce in China – a sector which is expected to grow above $2 trillion by the end of next year, powered by a user base of around 1 billion mobile users.  Growth will come however from all manner of sectors, from healthcare to connected vehicles, and through the growing range of identity services those sectors require:  authentication of payments, registration of users, verification of identities through eKYC, and gaining consent for the use of personal data, all of these and more will allow operators to look beyond their traditional role as providers simply of connectivity.

It may seem a crowded market, with numerous players moving into this space as time passes – but is it one where it’s all sewn up, and the opportunity is gone? “No,” Richard reassured delegates – “because no one company or method has even remotely come out on top.  We’re only at the end of the beginning, and are about to see this space really start to grow.”  So how are global service providers meeting that growing need in the Chinese market?  The GSMA’s Global Engagement Director Mark Harvey convened our panel considering how this can best be achieved, bringing together senior speakers from Microsoft, Trulioo and IPification to share their thoughts on success in this highly lucrative market. The common theme of their responses – collaboration.

Through a single API Trulioo can now verify over 5 billion individuals and 250 million businesses worldwide – without needing to own much of the data its service is based on.  By acting instead as what Trulioo’s Business Development Lead Ivan Yang compared to being the Uber or Airbnb of data, Trulioo can work with organisations from governments to banks to ensure people and organisations are who they claim to be. “In emerging markets,” explained Mr Yang, “what we’re seeing is that governments don’t have a single way of identifying their own citizens, and need that support from those that do.”  Operators then have a natural role to play in working with a truly global service provider, helping civic authorities bring contemporary public services to their citizens and improving efficiency and quality of life.  The business opportunities of course are also extensive: “What we want is to grow a truly global solution, and with so many global companies wanting to come to China, there’s so much we can do together – there are great opportunities for operators in developing markets, where they could become the only source of KYC solutions.”

IPification provides a form of secure, network-based technology for seamless authentication, and works extensively with the GSMA to support the mobile industry’s collaborative digital identity solution Mobile Connect. IPification’s CEO, Stefan Kostic, explained that “many of us in this space are trying to authenticate with network attributes – others are focussing on biometrics, or AI solutions – which I think illustrates the point about how there’s no single approach to be identified here. You need to be increasingly multifactor.  In our opinion there’s no trade-off here between user experience and security – and people are increasingly concerned with privacy too.” IPification’s pitch to operators working in China is in helping secure two bread-and-butter methods of authentication among operators: SMS OTP and header enrichment.

Microsoft’s partnership with the GSMA has focussed on developing a platform for individual operators to build their identity solutions on top of, through the scale made possible by Cloud technology.  A white-label platform of this kind means telcos can cater to their customers’ needs, and those of the region they’re operating in. Morgan Webb, Senior Strategic Alliances Lead at Microsoft, reflected that this means “as the biggest mobile internet country in the world, China has the potential to really set trends here.”

Mr Kostic agreed – it’s in China that much of the innovation in mobile identity services will take place.  “In China we see that mobile phone numbers are the default means users have of identifying themselves – as for people here internet access really is mobile-first – where in the West we’re still feeling the pain of email and password combinations,” he reflected. “This presents a really major opportunity for telcos to take the lead in the authentication space – and by providing a solution that blends security and user experience while taking into account the growing concerns with privacy, we’re looking forward to helping with that.” If the highly collegiate panel discussion in Shanghai is anything to go by, between three major players in digital identity, there’s a wealth of collaborative possibility out there in this space, and we at the GSMA are very much looking forward to helping realise it too.