The above vision is increasingly within reach, when you consider the multiplying efforts to design the necessary controls for both emerging digital identity systems and the individual communication devices upon which they can be housed. In addition, creative approaches are being tested to apply decentralized, blockchain techniques, to avoid reliance on a large, centralized database model, and better manage and contain those risks.
Privacy is another complex - but far from unsolvable - hurdle to digital identity implementation. Although some may question whether digital identity will compromise individual privacy rights if system providers gain unlimited access to each individual’s transactions and behaviors, such risks can be mitigated by architecting systems to minimize the amount of transaction data collected as part of identity verification. Essentially, by establishing clear privacy principles upfront, and incorporating them into the design foundations, you can embed the necessary protections into these systems. This approach will also help build digital trust with end-users, and assist in driving widespread adoption, and the required scale, to deliver many of the benefits of digitization.
In fact, building digital trust is every bit as important as the underlying security controls. And earning such trust could hinge on partnership between the private and public sectors.
First, governments must play a core role in ensuring the correct structures, controls and governance are in place. They must then introduce and explain these systems with transparency and accountability. The European Union, for example, recently completed its consultation on an EU digital identity, which will extend rules for electronic transactions to the private sector and promote trusted identities for all Europeans, including safer and easier use of online services and more control over personal data. You can hear more about the critical role privacy plays in the new BBC World Planet ‘digital identity’ series here.
Private sector technology firms can also play an integral part in earning user acceptance since many of these global names are already trusted providers of authentication mechanisms on popular digital services. The private sector can often bring great value to such public/private partnerships through their ability to instill ease and simplicity into system design.
At the end of the day, the challenges of rolling-out digital identity are not insurmountable, but we must learn from previous failures and perhaps the belief that technology by itself can provide a silver bullet.
We will only realize the vision of a secure and usable digital identity infrastructure if all parties work together and build public trust in the operation of system. This will require collaboration across sectors and geographies to achieve consistency and scale – alongside embedded security, privacy design and user-friendly function – and we will need to build this consensus over time, and also recognize the different culture and political environments this must work across. Organizations such as the World Economic Forum have a key part to play in creating this community and build momentum, and their recently publication on the future of cybersecurity, emerging technology and systemic risk is a great primer on the challenges ahead.
If we get this right, we can securely connect the world to the digital economy and drive economic growth and social development; and surely that is a benefit to us all.