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Digital Identity Will Transform our Lives, But There are Significant Barriers to Overcome

Ross Kelly

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Digital Identity

Digital identity has the potential to transform our day-to-day lives, but for that to happen we must overcome three decades of digital design and culture. 

Digital identity has the potential to rapidly transform the way citizens interact with public and private services, according to Andy Tobin, managing director for Europe at software firm Evernym.

Speaking at the 2nd International Blockchain Conference, hosted at Edinburgh Napier University, Tobin told DIGIT that a serious emphasis must be placed on the benefits of digital identity. 

For individuals, this offers the ability to obtain, hold, manage and present their own digitally verifiable credentials in a similar fashion to physical credentials, such as a drivers license. For organisations, the benefits are equally transformative – providing the ability to issue and verify credentials and have their own digital identity system.

A report published by McKinsey this year claimed digital identity is a “new frontier in value creation for individuals and institutions around the world”.

“When well-designed, digital ID not only enables civic and social empowerment but also makes possible real and inclusive economic gains,” the report states.

Despite living in the midst of a digital era, we remain bogged down and restricted by sluggish, antiquated systems of verification, Tobin believes; systems which are often frustrating due to their laborious and intensive nature.

“We have no digital equivalent for paper or plastic credentials, yet digital underpins every online action we make today. Whether that’s a person-to-person interaction or a person to an organisation,” he explains. “Because we don’t have digital credentials that work anywhere in the world, we are met with these barriers for authentication.”

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A concerted shift away from paper and plastic-based verification processes toward digitisation, Tobin believes, will have an immense impact on our lives in years to come.

“When you think about all of the barriers that are put in place before you can even access services, if we can get rid of those then the digital world becomes an awful lot simpler,” he says.

“At the moment, people have to walk through this minefield of registering and going through different checks for different things. For example, getting another username, password or whatever,” Tobin adds. “In the physical world, I can come along with a few pieces of paper and say ‘look it’s me‘ and that’s good enough to access certain services. We can’t do that in a digital world, until now where we have digital credentials.”

Some of the key barriers in this space are very much the result of “silo-based architectures” which have been present “since day one” of digital identity. This architecture, with an emphasis on usernames and passwords, is the product of three decades-worth of digital evolution.

The very structure of our digital world throughout this time, Tobin asserts, has been clumsy, clunky and restrictive. Developments in blockchain and cryptography, however, are offering new methods through which one’s identity can be verified and authenticated.

“It’s the product of thirty years of evolution,” he explains. “Simply put, there hasn’t been a better way. The default is ‘oh I need a username and password‘ and so we’ve all been trained into this behaviour to support this clumsy, clunky and very unfriendly mechanism of usernames, passwords and siloed accounts.”

The myriad of data silos that individuals and organisations must deal with, Tobin adds, are highly complex and often inhibitive. Ultimately, the result of this complicated web woven over the past thirty years has led to the cultivation of a “user experience nightmare”.

“You have all of these different silos that either can’t talk to each other for regulatory purposes, or can’t talk to each other because it’s too technically complex – or expensive. The result of this is a user experience nightmare for people,” he explains.

 

Ongoing developments in this field and the increased uptake of digital identity schemes won’t mean these silos disappear, however. They will remain but instead will become more easily-traversable; particularly as citizens gain greater control over how their data is used, proliferated and handled.

“These silos we have won’t cease to exist; they’ll still be there,” he says. Instead, though, the individual will become the courier of the data across these silos.”

“If I have credentials from one particular organisation that I can then use with any other, this essentially makes me the courier. I no longer have to worry about knitting these different silos together – or, in the case of an organisation, spend vast amounts of money to do that,” Tobin adds.

Explaining further, he says: “For example, if I wanted to access a new service from the council because, say, I have a disability; if the council gives me some new credential that shows I have said disability which allows me to instantly verify with another service, my life becomes an awful lot easier.”

A number of promising digital identity projects are already underway in the UK and have been accepted into the country’s “regulatory sandbox” programme, led by the Financial Conduct Authority.

Evernym, Tobin explains, is working closely with Deloitte and software company Onfido as part of an initiative to show that consumers can take control of their digital identities and ‘port’ previously verified digital identities across different companies.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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