If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that electronic identities (eIDs), also referred to as digital identities, will be a crucial cornerstone in the development of a more efficient public service and government. They will compliment our ability to respond to the fast moving and unpredictable world in which we live. A key example of this would be India’s decision to use its Aadhaar digital ID system to transfer funds to over 200 million vulnerable women during the pandemic, or the EU Digital COVID Certificate to effectively control the spread of the virus. And yet despite this growing awareness of the value and urgency of e-government, there continues to remain a major roadblock in the widespread adoption of eIDs, namely, the lack of trust amongst the public in their government’s capacity to protect their data and personal information. To overcome this problem, we need to harness the power of technologies such as Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI), which could circumvent the trust issues endemic in the user/verifier relationship.
Following the proliferation of data scandals including Cambridge Analytica back in 2018 and the resultant GDPR changes, public trust in the capacity of corporations and governments to protect their data plummeted, with a recent survey by KPMG showing that 86% of people feel a growing anxiety about data privacy.
This apprehensiveness naturally translates into a scepticism towards the adoption of eIDs, needless to mention the long-term reticence of British citizens to ID cards as a result of the data privacy concerns. A recent survey conducted by RegTech associates into Brits’ hesitations surrounding the government-proposed common digital identity, indeed found a staggering 61% of people had little or no level of trust in public bodies to safeguard their data. Australia’s new plans for a digital identity system sparked similar concerns over data protection. When Switzerland laid down the principles for the design of their eID back in December, they accordingly made data privacy their chief concern, dictating that “Data protection is to be guaranteed, among other things, by the system itself (privacy by design), but also by minimising the necessary data flows (principle of data economy) and decentralised data storage.” What this decision illustrates is a growing awareness that the widespread adoption of eIDs, and the realisation of their significant benefits, will never take place unless there are measures in place to guarantee that users maintain the utmost control over their data.
This is where SSI comes in. SSI guarantees data privacy by allowing the user to remain in full control of their data and actively consent to where and when it is used. This means that if you were to sign up for a government eID, you would not have to log into government service to access your data – you would hold the master copy in a digital identity wallet in your own phone. This has two benefits. Firstly, it gives you the tools to consent to when your identity is used, which coupled with stronger laws such as the EU Digital Governance Act, will prevent unauthorised sales or transfers of your data without your direct consent. Secondly, it incentivises companies to abide by data minimisation best practices, as people will no longer rely on companies to store all their data on their behalf. And companies will not have any legal reason to hold onto your data beyond its original purpose. In short, SSI enables data sovereignty by design: transferring control and meaningful consent back to people.
It is increasingly acknowledged that the implementation of e-government would bring about serious benefits, simplifying interactions and cutting down on time, money, and paper. And now we are seeing real legal and active progress.
The latest EU Data Governance Act, Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles, and potential changes to eIDAS, for example, lay the foundations for a robust digital and electronic identity framework that can complement SSI. More directly, the European Commission, Canadian, United States and Australian governments have all led, or intend to lead, initiatives to actively promote the use of SSI to streamline their e-government services or national data processes.
SSI is rapidly gaining momentum, as people are increasingly becoming more aware of risks and protective of their own data. This technology is set to be the tool that powers this transformation. We are on the cusp of a more modernised, transparent public service for all, moving away from being at a precipice where people are disenfranchised of their data.