Government launches digital identity consultation and new pilot scheme

DCMS is seeking views on the role of the government and private sector in developing digital identities, while a small-scale trial will open up passport data for companies to prove online IDs

The government has announced its latest plans to develop the UK’s digital identity sector, launching a consultation and starting a pilot scheme to open up access to passport data.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), working with the Cabinet Office, has issued a call for evidence from interested parties, to obtain views on the role of the government and the private sector in developing digital identities.

The move comes less than nine months before the flagship digital ID system Verify, developed by the Government Digital Service (GDS), is due to be handed over to the private sector.

DCMS claims its proposals for digital identity could add 3% to the UK’s GDP by 2030, a figure taken from a January 2019 McKinsey report.

The call for evidence is a back-to-basics review of the issues around digital identity – despite Verify having been live for over three years and in development for longer. The government is seeking expert views on the “needs and problems” of online identity, including the economic and social benefits of such a scheme, as well as the key criteria for establishing trust between different parties online.

The review is also keen to hear views on what role the government should play in supporting digital identity – and acknowledging that there are already competing programmes in the public sector, such as Verify, HM Revenue & Customs’ Gateway system used for tax returns, and the NHS Login project for accessing personal health records.

Similarly, opinions are sought on the role of the private sector when other different schemes are being developed by, for example, the banking sector.

Alongside the consultation, the government will, for the first time, start a pilot scheme to allow passport data to be used for private sector identity checks. As part of the Verify programme, GDS developed the Document Checking Service, which allows a small number of Verify-approved identity providers (IDPs) to validate people’s identities against passport and driving licence data.

Only passport checking will be used for the trial, however, and DCMS said it is "launching the pilot solely with HM Passport Office data in order to first understand the technical feasibility and market demand for such schemes".

The pilot will initially be limited to existing Verify users applying for private sector services such as credit cards through existing IDPs. The trial will subsequently be extended to “a small cohort” of other private sector firms, but the announcement gives no details on when this is likely to take place. DCMS said, "Further information on the pilot and process and timings will be announced in due course."

The passport checks will not involve any transfer of data – the service will only digitally confirm whether or not a passport presented by a user is valid. DCMS said there will be a charge for organisations wishing to access the Document Checking Service. 

Jeremy Wright, secretary of state for digital, said the proposals are part of plans to “cement Britain’s place as a world-leading digital economy”.

“These new proposals could make it easier for people to prove their identity without compromising their personal information and for businesses to conduct checks in a safe and secure way,” he said.

“This will help make sure more and more people benefit from the huge potential of technology and can use it to shop, bank and access government services.”

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Currently, Verify is limited to accessing a small number of central government services online. Despite calls from the private sector, it has not yet been opened up for use in commercial transactions. The government hopes that by handing Verify over to the IDPs – which include the Post Office and Experian – it will stimulate a wider market for digital identities across the UK.

“We are committed to delivering a thriving digital identity market that allows people to access more government and private sector services online safely and securely,” said Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office minister for implementation.

“Allowing organisations greater flexibility to reuse identities is an important step towards this goal.”

The latest annual report from the government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority, released yesterday (18 July), gave Verify a “red” rating, which is given to major programmes deemed to be “unachievable” because of issues around project definition, schedule, budget, quality and delivery of benefits.

Verify has had a troubled history, with barely half of the users attempting to prove their identity being able to do so. The project has missed targets for the number of digital services that have adopted it, and has attracted criticisms from the private sector for hindering the development of a commercial market for digital IDs.

Insiders suggest that the consultation on digital identity has come about largely because of frustration within Whitehall at Verify’s lack of progress.

A National Audit Office report in March found that “it is difficult to conclude that successive decisions to continue with Verify have been sufficiently justified”, while MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said in May that Verify is “failing its users”, has not delivered value for money, and its leaders have not accepted “proper accountability” for its problems.

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