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Digital identity system for EU nationals should be used for all UK citizens, says report

Policy Exchange report recommends extending Home Office system for registering EU nationals post-Brexit to become UK-wide digital identity application

The Home Office digital identity system being created for registering European Union (EU) nationals after Brexit should be extended to all UK citizens, according to a report by an influential think tank.

The study by Policy Exchange, titled The border audit, examined a range of issues concerning management of UK borders. Among its conclusions, the report said attitudes to identity systems have changed since the Coalition government scrapped Labour’s ID card programme in 2010.

As a result of immigration issues, the Windrush scandal and people becoming more relaxed about sharing information due to the growth of smartphones and social media, the report’s authors said a nationwide digital identity system would face fewer objections now than in 2010.

“Assuming the EU digital identity experiment is a success, a future government should press on and roll out the system to the whole country,” wrote authors David Goodhart, head of demography, immigration and integration, and Richard Norrie, demography, immigration and integration research fellow, both at Policy Exchange.

“It should initially be voluntary and, ideally, the greater convenience it would provide in interactions with public bodies would make it popular and thus easy enough to declare mandatory at some point in the future.”

The Home Office system for EU citizens staying in the UK after Brexit is due to undergo beta testing this year. The online process will link to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) tax databases to confirm people’s employment and residency status. Scanned copies of official documentation can also be used.

According to Policy Exchange, EU citizens will have access to a digital identity account to update their details, with a unique reference number for each person. When an EU citizen needs to prove their identity – if applying for a job or benefits, for example – they log on to the system using their passport, with a further verification step such as uploading a selfie to compare with biometric records.

They will receive a unique four-digit code that companies or government bodies can use online to verify their settled status without giving access to secure personal details.

“This mechanism means no more data is shared than necessary and is never physically transferred to a third party. The EU identity scheme should be seen as a trial run for a scheme that could include UK citizens too,” said the report.

The study also suggested that the mobile app being developed by the Home Office for EU citizens could soon also be available on iPhones – it was revealed in April that the app will only work on Android phones because Apple does not allow third-party apps to access the near-field communication (NFC) capabilities needed to scan passport chips.

“The scheme will operate online, accessed via the Gov.UK service and via a smartphone app, limited to Android devices at present due to technical limitations imposed by Apple that are expected to be resolved soon,” said the report.

Several parts of UK government are working on different digital identity systems at the moment, in addition to the Home Office.

HMRC is developing a new version of its Government Gateway system, which is the most widely used public sector identity system, used for filing online tax returns; NHS England is working on a digital ID system for patients; the Department for Work and Pensions has a separate one for Universal Credit; and the Scottish government is developing its own system.

The UK government’s official policy is to support Verify, the digital identity system developed by the Government Digital Service, which was given budget to reach 25 million users by 2020 – a target that is now highly unlikely to be achieved.

Performance problems with Verify led to other parts of government pursuing their own alternatives. Verify largely relies on third-party identity providers checking publicly available databases to confirm someone’s identity, but more than half of its users are unable to prove their identity as intended.

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