For People to Want Digital Identity, They Need to Know More About it

Governments across the globe are now increasingly alive to their citizens’ need for digital identity, with consultations and rollouts underway from Sierra Leone to Bangladesh – a historic shift in the right direction.  While some definitions now measure the digital economy at 15.5% of global GDP, there remain over 1 billion people worldwide without any form of formal identification, limiting their access to all manner of services – or even to a bank account.  Wholesale adoption of digital identity at the national level is therefore a vital step towards greater financial inclusion – indeed digital inclusion is now considered so important to promote economic development that the United Nations deems it a key enabler for 13 of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  Some efforts to date however point to areas where governments might benefit from the tech sector’s assistance, to help the benefits of digital identity more widely known – and the mobile industry is in prime position to share such expertise.

The Australian Government’s recent experience provides an instructive example.  The country’s Digital Transformation Agency (or DTA) is overseeing development of the GovPass project, which aims to provide Australians with an integrated identity solution to access a wide array of government and private sector services.   The DTA held a series of focus groups and workshops to test public attitudes and receptiveness to the work so far, the report of which has recently become available.  The outcomes of those sessions did not, it turns out, suggest that the Australian Government has yet been able to fully communicate the benefits of digital identity to its citizens.

Many participants expressed misgivings around privacy and security, with some reluctant even to try the service without demonstrable assurances and extensive education.  “It appears that ‘reassurance’ of security isn’t enough,” noted the report; “participants want to know that their information is secure – they want it tested, tried and proven before they will commit to adopting.”   When asked to rank their most significant priorities in digital identity, those the DTA had hoped would be at the forefront of participants’ minds (the convenience of needing to enter information only once, or the same way regardless of device) were ranked well behind privacy and security: “The most important needs were around security of data, control over how much information is given, and trust over how their data is used. This theme was consistent throughout conversations in all sessions.”

More striking still was the discovery that few of those surveyed were aware of the Australian Government’s initiatives in this space – with some unaware more generally of what digital identity even is.  “Current understanding of digital identity will impact adoption,” concluded the report, which noted that “based on the sample size, nearly two thirds of Australians will need information about digital identity before they will understand it well enough to use it.  People with either understanding based on false assumptions, or no understanding, are not going to understand the benefits enough to want to try it.”

Such caution can be observed around the world, as too can evidence that people often simply aren’t thinking about digital identity at all.  In Canada, fully 78% of respondents are concerned about their personal data being compromised online, according to a recent survey by the Digital Identity and Authentication Council of Canada – but only around half said they are even familiar with the concept of digital identity.  What Canadians do strongly support, by 70%, is the principle that the government should work together with the private sector to deliver a digital identity framework – which around three quarters would be willing to use for government, financial and health services.

It’s a critical juncture for digital identity’s development, and government agencies need support to allay the concerns outlined above.  No technology has a right to exist, and if people don’t feel they have clear cause for confidence, talk of inevitability in digital identity’s mass adoption may yet prove premature. Where the mobile industry’s emphasis (and track record) on privacy can be combined with the ubiquity of its networks, public sector applications of digital identity can truly flourish.  Take for instance the case of Belgium, where nearly 1 in 5 online government transactions are now conducted via itsme, the fast-growing mobile identity app devised through collaboration between three of the country’s leading operators.  The Belgian Government’s recognition of itsme’s secure design paved the way for its integration into all government e-service sites, including for taxes, pensions, careers and more – and Belgian citizens have voted with their fingers, so to speak.

In the UK, the Government’s announcement last month that it intends to introduce a new voter ID scheme was regarded by some analysts as a distraction from the crucial task at hand, to be addressed before any particular use case can be made good at scale: mainstream engagement with the public on digital identity, with an emphasis on decentralisation and individual control. The mobile industry can offer innovative solutions here – through, for instance, the combination of user control via distributed ledger technologies like blockchain, convenience via mobile devices, and the unparalleled security credentials of cellular networks.  This year saw such identity solutions, based on the principle that users can choose which personal data to share, and with whom, announced by SK Telecom, Deutsche Telekom and Turkcell – and as consumers reassert their insistence on privacy and control, we can expect interest in such approaches to grow considerably over the coming years.

Before that comes to fruition on a global scale, though, some of the data coming out of the last month suggests a more fundamental job remains to be done: helping to make the benefits of digital identity in general more widely known.  These may seem obvious to those who spend their days thinking about it, but they’re clearly not to plenty of people around the world – indeed, many haven’t so much as given it a thought.  So for those of us in the tech world who want to play a part in delivering these solutions, it has become a commercial imperative to get out there and change that.  For the mobile industry’s part, that can be achieved by engaging governments and the public through thought leadership, public events, and most importantly the power of example – and the GSMA is here to help it do so.