The challenges – and success – of implementing a digital identity system in the world’s largest democracy were discussed at a Global Government Forum webinar that looked at how countries can implement systems to help move public service delivery online
The chief executive of India’s Unique Identification Authority, Dr Saurabh Garg joined a panel of public servants to share information on how digital ID was introduced in a country of 1.3 billion people.
Speaking at the ‘Digital ID from a standing start’ webinar, organised by our sister title Global Government Forum, Garg highlighted that the Indian government launched the programme to create what is now the digital ID – Aadhaar (‘Foundation’) – in 2010, when a decision was taken to replace numerous different ID cards – covering services like driving licence, tax registration or food subsidies – with a single system.
“It was felt there was a need to have a kind of an all-purpose portable ID which is real-time authenticable for all residents,” he said. In the subsequent 10 years, Garg revealed, the government has achieved 100 per cent coverage of the adult population with the digital ID, which allocates a 12-digit random number to every citizen.
He highlighted that having an ID can be “empowering for the most vulnerable” in India. “The ability to be able to say who I am, for a person who has no identity, who’s not literate, who’s living in remote areas, is so empowering. The benefits are really large.”
However, there is a need to make sure that the ID system is designed to “go that extra mile” for people who are vulnerable or living in remote communities, he said. The public-private partnership used to rollout the digital ID was incentivised to get people enrolled, with the technology kept as simple as possible so it “can be used even in areas where there is no electricity and where there is no connectivity”, Garg said, with the data uploaded in full later. Such an approach “will ensure that a lot of people will have the minimum documentation that is necessary”.
The deployment of digital IDs has also opened up scope for other policy responses. As the IDs are used by banks to authenticate customers, they are linked to bank accounts, meaning the Indian government was able to use them during the coronavirus pandemic to provide support payments to vulnerable people.
The webinar’s other panellists also shared their experiences of rolling out a digital ID system. Andri Heiðar Kristinsson, the chief executive of Digital Iceland, part of the country’s Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, said his ministry had led the development, working across the rest of government and with as many as 165 agencies.
Iceland’s digital infrastructure has two elements, he said. One is the creation of an ‘e-ID’ that citizens use as a digital signature to access services, and the second is the digitisation of documents and services that are used to prove who you are, such as driving licences.
More than 90 per cent of adults in Iceland have the first element – a digital signature – while the digitisation of in-person documents is now used by more than 50 per cent of the population.
The digital signature element was initially created by a private company for use by banks and telecoms companies, and was later acquired by government. Heiðar Kristinsson said this process had been useful because people became used to using the ID before it was adopted by government. “This helped us to build up a little bit of trust, because people were [already] using this mechanism to authenticate themselves,” he said.
Using native technology
Among the lessons from Iceland was the need to consider how costs would be met – there, the rollout has been subsidised by the finance ministry – and, as Dr Garg also highlighted, the technology used. Heiðar Kristinsson recommended using “native solutions” – such as building the technology to use Google or Apple phone wallets – to roll out the programme as easily as possible.
“One of the challenges is being a small nation with somewhat limited resources, so you have to adapt to native mobile solutions as much as possible,” he said. “We built this app as a pass in the native wallets by Google and Apple – it has a dynamic QR code, and there’s a scanner app from Digital Iceland that’s available to everyone to verify the driver licence.”
Helen Raamat, the product owner in authentication services at the Information System Authority in Estonia, shared the lessons from her country, where the digital e-ID has been built on the national ID card that is “the cornerstone of the state”.
“The ID and the ecosystem around it is part of any citizen’s daily transactions in the public or private sector,” she said. “People use their e-IDs to pay bills, do the government voting online, sign contracts with their digital signatures, shop online or access their health records or information and much more.” Digital driving licences, like in Iceland, are being developed, too.
Another speaker – Tor Alvik, the subject director at the Digitalisation Directorate in Norway – said his country shared similarities with both Iceland and Estonia, in that they are all operating systems in line with the European Union’s single market regulations for Electronic Identification and Trust Services (eIDAS).
“We are a country where we have a high level of digitalisation, and have had for many years and we also have a population with a high level of trust in government,” Alvik said.
The geographical reality of Norway as a large country with a scattered population means that digital services are “the way that you can carry out your business without spending a lot of time travelling”.
As a result, Norway’s digital ID system has been built so it can be used for “most sectors of life”, and there is 93 per cent take-up in the population over the age of 13. As well as the e-ID being used by 1,500 public sector agencies, it is also used for online banking, or going to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription.
However, the webinar touched on the challenges countries face as they attempt to develop digital ID schemes. Chief among them was the need for the digital IDs to be based on unique identifiers for citizens that can be used across different services, rather than establishing digital IDs for individual services, or creating a digital system that is separate from paper-based identify schemes.
Miguel Carrasco, the global leader at Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) Center for Digital Government, shared the results of a survey on digital government that the centre had undertaken across 41 countries.
The starting point for the research was asking the 28,000 respondents whether they actually want a digital ID, said Carrasco, and there was “overwhelming” support for it, with backing from 95 per cent of respondents.
However, respondents said they would prefer to have two digital IDs – one for government and one for private sector use – rather than a single one.
Carrasco said that it was possible to say from the results of the survey that there was demand for digital IDs that can be used for government services, and there was a strong preference for national and state government to take the lead on digital IDs.
Unique identifier – and cross-border digital IDs
Other panellists said a unique identifier is key to further development of their ID systems.
In Estonia’s case, Raamat said they found that having a digital ID without a unique identifier “does not help very much”. The country uses the identifier as the main key to connect government data sets around individual users. “With the unique identifier, we always know that the person is always the same person when using different services,” Raamat said.
Looking to the future, Heiðar Kristinsson, Alvik, and Raamat all highlighted the potential for cross-border digital IDs to help join up services.
Heiðar Kristinsson said “a unique identifier between countries remains a constant challenge” as although the European regulations around eIDAS create a common framework, there are not yet cross-Europe digital IDs.
Alvik stressed the need for such an approach. The current system means that when people arrive in Norway from other European countries under freedom of movement rules, the state has no way of finding out their needs – despite that information being stored elsewhere.
“People come with a history, and we have a lot of legacy problems, because then the level of information about what you have in your home country might be lacking. So quite a lot of investment in infrastructure is needed to handle these problems,” he said.
The existing e-ID rules in Europe do not currently mandate this, he said, “and of course, the world is a lot bigger than just Europe”.
“When we are talking about this in global scale, we also need to talk about what kind of standardisation can we do? [But] a legal framework that covers the whole world can be pretty hard to arrange, I think.”
Raamat said that there were some legal barriers to agreeing common standards, as well as cultural ones. “We haven’t really agreed on a common solution that fits for all but the European Union is currently developing this European identity wallet, and e-ID regulations are also under review. We’re hoping that outcomes from those projects will give us some light.”
READ MORE Digital ID – what is it, why is it needed, and how are governments developing it
Dr Garg said India is also looking at how it can work with other countries to “contribute to building the global digital ID ecosystem”, while Carrasco said that there is “some converging on open standards and some sense of interoperability” going on across countries, but said there were some big challenges – although not insurmountable – to going further.
“The key thing in my view that needs to be resolved is alignment on identity proofing guidelines, because they’re not completely aligned globally and the levels of assurance need to be consistent. There [also] needs to be some agreement on the technology protocols or the open standards that are going to be adopted,” he said.
Heiðar Kristinsson also named the need to provide digital IDs to vulnerable parts of the population as a key challenge.
“Accessibility is a challenge,” he said. “I mentioned over 90 per cent [take-up in Iceland]. But what do you do with the remaining 10 per cent? People with disabilities, elderly people, kids and so forth? That’s an ongoing challenge for us [and] I think we all face it in the digital transformation.”
He said that elderly people and people with disabilities “do feel they are being left behind” by moves to digital ID.
Iceland allows elderly people to delegate authority to have someone set up a digital ID on their behalf. “It’s a difficult conversation to have… That’s where we’re focusing on building these services so that if people are not in a position to use their digital IDs themselves, someone else certainly can on their behalf in a legal, transparent and traceable way,” Heiðar Kristinsson said.
In addition, the BCG survey found very little variance in the appetitive for digital IDs among different groups, dispelling the idea that take-up would differ between age groups.
“There’s very little statistical variation by age, or gender or geography – the results are similar. So this isn’t a sort of young people thing or, you know, remote, rural thing,” he said.
Watch the webinar, which was held on 10 May 2022, in full (1hr 15min 59sec) =>
Global Government Forum’s webinar ‘Digital ID from a standing start: Online verification for nations without a national ID card’ was held with the support of knowledge partner Boston Consulting Group.
This article first appeared on Global Government Forum
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