Today (20 May 2021) in the House of Lords I asked about the Government’s plans for a distributed digital identification protocol. A distributed digital ID offers incredible potential for reimagining the relationship between citizen and state and delivering significant social and economic benefits.

“Lord Holmes of Richmond to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to introduce a distributed digital identification protocol for the United Kingdom?”

Oral Question, House of Lords, May 20, 2021

The Minister responding, Baroness Barran, referred to the Draft Trust Framework published in February by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and announced that the next iteration of the framework would be published in the summer. In addition, Baroness Barran assured us that digital ID legislation would be consulted on this year.

I followed up by asking which sectors the Government was considering in terms of the development of proofs of concept. Baroness Barran replied that the Government is:

“eager to look into pilots in healthcare, tourism, housing, conveyancing and insurance, [although] all of this is subject to spending review outcomes.”

Baroness Barran, House of Lords, May 20, 2021.

As we begin building back better from the devastating Covid pandemic we must put the development of a distributed digital ID firmly at the heart of our recovery. A digital ID has so many potential benefits and, if we get it right, it will be such a boon for Britain. The economic benefits were analysed in research by the McKinsey Global Institute which showed how ‘good digital ID is a new frontier in value creation for individuals and institutions around the world.’

“Extending full digital ID coverage could unlock economic value equivalent to 3 to 13 percent of GDP in 2030, with just over half the potential economic value potentially accruing to individuals.”

Digital identification: A key to inclusive growth, McKinsey Global Institute, April 17, 2019

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in a recent report have noted that digital ID would be of significant help to the greater adoption of Open Finance. The potential benefits though are not merely economic. A trusted and effective government-issued central digital ID could enable and empower individuals currently (or potentially) excluded from exercising their citizen rights and accessing basic financial services. In 2011, at our last census, 17% of UK citizens had no passport, digital ID could effortlessly get past this problem.  Digital ID: no passport, no problem.

After some unfortunate false starts I am delighted that it seems that digital ID is developing with some increase of pace from the Government. I see no reason why the UK could not be at the forefront of implementing this technology and establishing precedence relating to governance and legal liability, as has happened so successfully in the digital payments sector. However, we do need greater focus and coordination. The independent Kalifa Review of UK Fintech, published its report in February 2021, which highlighted the need for a coalition on digital ID to avoid misunderstanding and confusion about competing standards.

I have been pushing for greater urgency on this issue for some time and put forward several amendments to the recent Financial Services Bill. My proposed amendment would have required the Secretary of State, within six months of the passage of the bill to publish the government’s plans for the development and deployment of a distributed digital identification for individuals and corporate entities in the financial services sector.

Further, the amendment stated that such ID must be scalable, flexible, and inclusive, capable of deployment and take-up across the entire UK, and capable of adapting to change – not least in new technologies such as quantum computing. By inclusive I mean not just inclusion concerning protected characteristics as set out in equality legislation, but wider – a guarantee that a digital ID will enable and empower everyone across the piece.

The twelve guiding principles of self-sovereign identity [SSI] help to explain how a distributed digital ID could work in all our interests; secure, decentralised, transparent, embedding equity and inclusion and protecting our privacy. A practical, functional solution. And in terms of effective operation, just one word: interoperability.  Worth restating though, as it is so critical to success: interoperability, interoperability, interoperability.

Finally, the amendment required the Secretary of State to undertake a public engagement campaign around digital IDs to raise awareness and participation in the process. Why should any of us feel anything other than antipathy and scepticism if something is put forward which we have had nothing to do with, heard anything about or been able to influence, interrogate or even see close up? I call for, and would welcome, a public debate, engaging, enquiring, critiquing. 

Just as our personal data, through an effectively delivered digital ID would have our ID in our hands, so it is with the opportunity itself.  Distributed digital ID, it’s not an inevitability. Thankfully, at last, it’s currently somewhat more than just a distant dream and we must all be part of this: the discussion, the journey, the design, and the deployment.

Can The U.K. Government Get To Grips With Digital Identity? Forbes, May 19, 2021

Lack of leadership, confusion and frustration – the state of digital identity in the UK. Computer Weekly, April 20, 2021

There’s a real prize for the UK to lead when it comes to distributed digital ID, CityAM, March 11, 2021

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