Digital identities in the UK: can we make this work?

With digital identity once more a major talking point within government, Ana Gillan, senior solutions engineer at Cloudera argues that trust, accessibility and governance must be prioritised as a matter of urgency

Posted 16 February 2021 by

The accelerated digitisation of public services necessitated by the pandemic has led to the government updating its plans on digital identities. It estimates that doing so could boost the economy by as much as three percent, which is the equivalent of billions. So what’s given new impetus to a concept that’s been discussed for a number of years? Following the revelation that 2.6 million people made a claim for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme between May and September 2020, with 1.4 million having no prior digital identity credentials, there is a fresh sense of optimism about both the implementation and outcomes of digital identities.

A single successful scheme, however, does not a national rollout make. Our digital identities are composed of identifiers or attributes, which can be assigned, selected or implicit to the user. These identifiers and attributes do not sit in one common database, they are spread out across multiple systems. With no standards or frameworks to unify them, a digital identity once created is not reusable. And that’s a problem, because if an identity is not easily reusable it creates a clunky user experience and this jenga-like approach brings with it a significant element of risk. 

A question of trust

A critical issue here is trust. Trust in how data is managed. Trust in how data is secured and protected. Trust in how data is governed. Trust is the currency of the digital economy, and right now trust is deflated. Recent missteps, such as admissions that the UK’s test and trace system breached GDPR rules as well as historical ones such as care.data, have done little to instil confidence in the UK public that their data is in good hands. Yet digital identities can only truly work if we’re all on board and believe society as a whole will stand to benefit. There are no half measures here. 

Building that trust, I believe, will come down to a few critical elements. Firstly, we need complete transparency, in all communications, regarding the use of people’s data for this programme. Ensuring that people still feel that they own, and are in control, of their data. Second, we need to create one, reusable digital identity that gives citizens seamless access to government services. Our data must be unified using an agreed set of standards and frameworks which allow for easy integration.

Often overlooked is the necessity to ensure that digital identity services are accessible to all – especially the most vulnerable in our society. Many of those who would benefit most from an easy-to-use, integrated system, do not have regular access to the internet or a computer. Survey data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that only 67 percent of UK citizens  of the 65+ age group, have internet access, for example. The research also points out that lower socioeconomic status is another key factor for digital exclusion, as these groups are less likely to be computer-literate. Any system the UK introduces must ensure that it specifically caters to the needs of those who rely on its services for survival. Focus groups, design partnerships and association with advocacy groups like Age UK must be integral to the design process.

And finally, governance and security must be top of mind from the outset. A project the size of a nation-wide digital identity programme can only work if the government can ensure end-to-end transparency, lineage and security of data. To make this happen, the government must have a data strategy solution that provides a holistic view of all the data it’s collecting, how it’s being used and who has access to it. 

Ensuring end-to-end transparency and security of data in the public sector has been done before. For example, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was able to increase more than ten times the amount of data it processed, when it added businesses’ VAT data in GDP measurements in 2018. The secret to this project’s success? The ONS invested in a platform that provided a comprehensive view of all the data it collected and its lineage, therefore being able to reassure UK organisations that their sensitive data was secure. In this case, full visibility and transparency were key for the UK to reap the benefits of data analytics. 

The way ahead

Whilst the path to digital identities might be bumpy, it is by no means an impossible feat. Estonia is a brilliant example of what’s possible. Ninety-eight percent of Estonian citizens have ID Cards, making it the most developed national system in the world. The same citizen ‘identity’ is used across multiple services, from national health insurance and e-prescriptions to voting registration. Its success is owed largely to a completely auditable data management system. It is likely that Estonia did not have the same burden of thousands of legacy systems and processes like we have in the UK and it is clear that their government put a huge focus of digitisation as a priority, but I believe it is a standout example of how digital identities can enrich people’s lives. 

With the UK economy predicted to be the worst hit by the pandemic, the economic benefits of digital identities are clear. But we must be sure that they benefit all in society, not just a few. To do this we need to have the right governance structures in place that promote transparency, trust and ease of use. Only then can we become a truly digital nation.

Ana Gillan is senior solutions engineer at Cloudera