This article is a recap of the discussions held at a 2-day Economist event “The rise of digital identity.” As a recap of conversations on identity across government, banking, and travel that also discussed criminal activity around identity it is not surprising that the article confused some basic concepts such as separating the act of identifying an individual to meet the needs of the authenticator versus the act of tagging that individual for authenticating their previously established identity. These are two very different efforts.
A large part of the problem we have today in managing identity is that every authenticator has its own needs regarding what identifying information it considers sufficient to qualify as “identified” and then uses its own unique authentication technique, most commonly just a user ID and password. Smartphone biometrics combined with Fast Identity Online (FIDO) is likely to establish a shared user authentication method, but does little to solve the issue that each authenticator maintains its own perspective of “who I am.”
Self-Sovereign Identity enables the individual to connect authenticators so they can share verifiable credentials about me. If I apply for a credit card, I can connect the credit card supplier to my state Motor Vehicle Department, my bank, and to the Post Office so each can securely and privately validate I am who I claim. I hope that all of this was made clear at the Economist event:
“Panelists addressed various challenges facing both public- and private sectors and how to stay ahead of the technological curve in a rapidly changing “winner-takes-all” paradigm.
COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the already fast-paced shift towards digitization in nearly every industry imaginable. Panelists from industry, civil society, and government-provided insights on the various opportunities and challenges brought upon by a digital-by-default world. Among these challenges, the partnership between governments and private companies has become a crucial point in determining the success of innovative technologies aimed at serving the public.
Digital identity in banking and finance
The banking and finance panel, chaired by the Economist’s U.S. finance correspondent Alice Fulwood, featured Thought Machine CEO Paul Taylor, Onfido CEO Mike Tuchen, and Ripple General Manager Asheesh Birla. The panel of three examined the impact of increasing cashless spending amid global restrictions on in-person transactions due to COVID-19.
They further discussed how older demographics, such as the over-65’s, have been forced to enter the digital realm for the first time. The implications of the digital shift will last, even after the world physically reopens for business. Furthermore, leapfrogging through mobile penetration has boosted e-banking innovation in emerging economies where large previously “unbankable” population segments reside. Yet, this newly opened market presents some key challenges such as cost considerations and scalability. These and other questions provided for a rich discussion filled with unique insights and lessons learned.
The panelists discussed if digitization has leveled the playing field, with Birla suggesting those without the means to go digital have suffered most. Slow-moving regulations were agreed to be among the main roadblocks to rapid transformation, and Tuchen argued that strong digital identity is key to future-proofing business with customer-centric digital experiences.
Digital democracy and e-voting potential
The Economist Senior Editor Kenn Cukier chaired a four-person panel on digital democracy and e-voting. Tusk Philanthropies President Sheila Nix represented civil society, while Jan Neutze, the head of Microsoft’s digital diplomacy and defending democracies program represented the private sector. The public sector was represented by Estonian Government CIO office Global Affairs Director Indrek Õnnik and the United Nations’ Digital Government Branch Chief Vincenzo Aquaro.
The global demand for e-government services has been sharply accelerated by COVID-19, a challenge for governments and private companies seeking to adopt innovation broadly and fast. E-government promises better accessibility, transparency, and efficiency to those with digital ID. Such benefits resonate strongly in societies where the pandemic has aggravated low trust levels in government. In Estonia, 99 percent of government services, including voting, are available online. The Baltic nation holds first place in the United Nations E-Government Development Index.
“When we talk about digital government or eGovernment the core actor is the government. But it’s impossible to talk about governments exclusively,” posited Aquaro. “Some key functions cannot be delegated to the private sector. So, still governments carry a lot of responsibility. What matters to the UN is to act as a platform to facilitate the dialog between the private and public sectors but also civil society. We always seek to create an opportunity for partnership. But now more than ever, the role of the UN has become more important to facilitate and to create the pre-condition and condition to establish alliance and collaboration that have concrete outcomes to support first and foremost the needs of citizens. “
Nix discussed the remote voting trials Tusk has carried out in partnership with Voatz, and the panelists talked about how different stakeholders can foster responsible innovation.”
Overview by Tim Sloane, VP, Payments Innovation at Mercator Advisory Group