THE DIGITAL RED LINE COULD BE THINNING
After Boris Johnson stated that he would have preferred eating an ID-card as opposed to carrying one, a lot changes. Examples abound, with The Windrush scandal, an embarrassing fall during the Coronavirus pandemic in processing millions of self-employment support scheme’s claims underlined the importance of holding an easily accessible form of identification.
Probably, the rosy outlook of saving millions on bureaucracy gave the final push. On the 1st of September, No 10 announced its new digital identity plan. As nicknamed by The Times, the Cummings data revolution has started. Here we go, once again.
Digital identity projects are not unknown to the UK political agenda. Already in 2006 a new ID system made its way amongst government’s plans, though in vain. In 2010 the proposal definitely collapsed, bringing with it a billions in bills. Over the years, we have witnessed several digitalisation failures which, instead of cutting costs, have weighed down taxpayer pockets. From Universal Credit and the e-borders programme, to the Verify system’s fiasco. It is precisely looking at this last example that we could speculate about how it is going to end. The programme, launched by the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2016, can be seen as the older unsuccessful brother of the recent identity proposal. It was, indeed, intended to give to users a simpler process to prove their identity. However, as WIRED reported, it has the potential to reach only a 42% success rate in doing so. Not the best way to conquer the trust of Brits.
Mr Cummings cannot surely blame citizens for being skeptical about this new data reform. Also during these last rough months of health crisis, the digital side of No 10 has not really shined. A stumble track and trace programme was introduced without a prior privacy impact assessment. This was accompanied by a disastrous attempt of building a NHS app for controlling the spread of COVID-19. After millions of pounds spent, it seems to not have a place among government priorities anymore. For not talking about the nightmare of the A-level grades algorithm, which sparked discontent throughout British students. What is going to be different now, then?
As the government outlined on its official website, the plan is “to update existing laws on identity checking to enable digital identity to be used as widely as possible.” This will make it easier to utilise different services, like registering to a new GP or buying age-restricted items. Details of how exactly this will take shape have not been finalised yet. At the moment, a new government Digital Identity Strategy Board have developed six principles that the digital identity plan has to follow. These are: privacy, transparency, inclusivity, interoperability, proportionality and good governance. As Cabinet Office Minister, Julia Lopez, revealed “We want to ensure there is transparency for people when they create and use digital identities so that they are always in control of who has access to their data and for what purpose.” All good for now, on paper at least.
Streamlining bureaucracy and increasing efficiency are at the core of digital ID strategy. The scheme could possibly benefit citizens, consumers, businesses as well as government, helping to produce an economic growth. It will also be essential for coping with identity fraud. As figures coming from the CIFAS (UK fraud prevention service) 2019 report show, over the last five years there was a 32% rise in fraudulent identity-related activity. 223,163 cases have been recorded just in the last year. A digital approach can also generate new insights on the behaviour of citizens; an important feature for improving government policy-making. These, combined with the capacity to deliver better and faster social assistance and support to those in need, are positive outcomes which a solid and well planned digital ID system could lead to.
Several countries across the globe decided to adopt a digital identification approach during recent years. At the time of writing, more than 120 nations utilised passports that contain biometric information, such as fingerprints and facial recognition. Defined as the most advance digital society in the world, Estonia is the best example of how the digitalisation of public services could benefit both government and citizens. The Baltic nation has, indeed, been successfully employing digital IDs technology for a decade already.
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About 99% of services have now passed online and are available 24/7. Thanks to the e-taxation, it gained a golden medal as one of the best countries in the world according to tax collection. Also online voting positively affected elections participation. And, an online healthcare system proved to be extremely convenient for cutting costs.
However, Estonia is a tiny country with a small population. One of the main reasons for its success is that they started from scratch, designing the whole national system online. Estonian leaders have also invested lots of money to building a robust digitalised society. While, the UK government, beside its scarce effectiveness when it comes to digital issues, has lots of services that need to be integrated and digitalised. It is precisely the lack of details about how to cope with this problem that is making all of us a bit perplexed and concerned. Also techUK seems to not be satisfied about it, Reuters reported.
The digital implementation has to be bilateral and supported by every participant as well as authorities and organisations. EU nationals have already experienced the first consequences of that. Indeed, the decision to not provide physical proof of the settled status created more than a problem. Some EU citizens were held up in the airport and others faced delay in changing home because they did not have any paper documentation to show. Also the application process was far from simplified.
Another worrying point is privacy, of course, since a big part of our life has passed online, is how the data collected could be used. And, when this includes sensitive personal information, we should all keep our eyes wide open. Who is going to have access to the online identity database? Who will be able to use it? And, ultimately, how citizens information will be protected from cyber attacks? Once again, we still do not have answers. We remember how Dominic Cummings described the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation in 2018; as “horrific” and “idiotic”… for who has forgotten. Or, perhaps, we even now have in mind the leak of private information which occurred in India, in March of the same year, where the data of digital ID holders had been exposed.
Necessary or intrusive move? Possibly. We are still marked by the NHS app’s tale for raising suspicion. The government attempt at building a centralised application, despite warnings of privacy jeopardisation from experts is probably not the best record. As Gracie Bradley, policy and campaigns manager at the civil rights organisation Liberty, pointed out “National digital ID systems tend to rely on creating huge central databases, meaning that all of our interactions with the State and public services can be recorded. This personal data could then be accessed by a range of Government agencies or even private corporations, potentially in combination with other surveillance technologies like facial recognition.”
Despite privacy matters, a poorly-planned system could potentially provoke more harm than good. One of the positive features of digital IDs is that it allows authorities to rapidly identify vulnerable groups and remotely send support. For instance, Chile and Thailand had had great advantage in using digital identification when giving assistance to people during the outburst of the Corona-virus pandemic. However, a poorly organised digital scheme could make the access of basic services really hard to some vulnerable people. Citizens that cannot afford digital technologies are naturally excluded, as well as users extraneous to the digital world.
As we have seen, digital identities could represent an important step into the future. It can prevent identity fraud, limit bureaucracy, make services more accessible and boost the economy. On the other hand, badly managed system can represent a liability for the country or, worst, undermined citizens’ privacy and personal freedom. Spectators of several digital flop and scandals, Britons appeared to have lost trust in No 10’s ability in building an efficient technological system. And citizens trust is precisely the key factor for the success of any digital reform.