Government must urgently prioritise digital identity, says tech sector

TechUK calls on government to make digital identity a focus of its digital strategy as the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the ‘urgent need’ for digital IDs

Trade body TechUK has called on the government to urgently prioritise digital identity policy and make sure it is at the “heart” of its upcoming digital strategy.

So far, the government’s focus has been around digital identity in the public sector, but the TechUK has found there is a need for citizens to have widespread access to digital identity services.

In a whitepaper, TechUK said the government “must take a lead in digital identity as an essential tool for the whole digital economy, not just for the smooth functioning of digital government”.

“What is needed is a market for digital identities which spans the public and private sectors in an interoperable way,” it said.

“Yet in markets which are networked, where multiple parties are involved, where interoperability and mutually respected standards are key, the private sector is not always able to act alone. It needs a centralised catalyst, a convenor, to promote, and indeed to pursue, collaboration among competing players.”

It said the coronavirus crisis has highlighted an “urgent need“ for digital IDs, as the pandemic has shown first-hand how difficult not having access to digital identity services has made “conducting day-today activities in a digital way”.

The whitepaper comes after TechUK wrote privately to digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) secretary Oliver Dowden to express the industry’s frustrations and request that “urgent needs” are resolved to enable a UK digital identity market.

Policy around digital identity has been affected by Whitehall in-fighting between the Cabinet Office, where the Government Digital Service (GDS) owns the troubled Verify programme, and Dowden’s DCMS, which has policy responsibility for the wider digital economy.

A Digital Identity Unit (DIU), combining resources from GDS and DCMS, was announced in June last year but is not yet operational. A consultation on digital identity was launched in July 2019 and completed in September that year, but the government has not yet published any of the submissions or its response, despite promising to do so by the spring of 2020.

“There has been no publicly communicated announcement on the scope of its remit, its resources, who will lead it or what powers it will have,” said the whitepaper.

TechUK also called on the government to publish the response to its consultation “as a matter of urgency”, including “coherent policy statements” on how the provision of digital identity services into government will be opened up to competition, and ensure that legislation which stands in the way of digital identities is revised to recognise that it is an acceptable and preferred way of identification.

GDS has been working on a trust framework of standards for digital identity, but TechUK called the progress “slow and opaque” and said the government must complete the framework urgently, and ensure it is interoperable with the European Union.

The European Commission recently launched a public consultation into plans to revise the electronic identification, authentication and trust services (eIDAS) regulation.

The consultation will collect views from stakeholders on planned revisions to the regulation, which includes extending it to the private sector.

In June 2020, Dowden announced plans for a digital strategy as part of the government’s technology-led economic recovery strategy post-Covid-19.

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The strategy, which is due to be published this autumn, will set out how to build a highly skilled digital workforce across the UK, help people to adjust to a digital-led economy, help businesses become digital and enable people to move into the tech sector.

TechUK wants to see digital identity made a central part of the strategy, calling on the government to “take a lead in digital identity as an essential tool for the whole digital economy, not just for the smooth functioning of digital government – it must step beyond its own parameters and play a proactive role in enabling all citizens to have access to a functioning digital identity market”.

The government has also recently launched a pilot of its Document Checking Service (DCS), which aims to open up passport data to allow private sector organisations to check identities digitally.

But TechUK said the pilot “is proceeding at a very slow pace”, adding: “The trial should be expanded and accelerated with the end goal of providing truly scalable digital services via modern APIs [application programming interfaces]. Security and trust can be enabled by requiring API consumers to be regulated or certified organisations.”

Commenting on the whitepaper, TechUK CEO Julian David said that proving people’s identity “is fundamental to so much of what we do in all our lives, from buying goods and services to paying our taxes”.

He added: “Having safe and secure forms of digital identity is an essential requirement for a world-class digital economy. However, we won’t achieve this by accident and we need a clear strategy that brings together both the public and private sector now to get this done in 2020.”

The whitepaper also highlighted the potential benefits for the UK economy if the country adopts digital identity services across the board. It cites a McKinsey report, released pre-Covid, which estimated that by 2030, digital identity could increase the UK’s GDP by 3%, and figures from the Open Identity Exchange, which estimated that the wider benefits to the economy “could be closer to £60bn”.

Digital identity could also support the UK’s recovery from the pandemic, including with contract tracing, said TechUK. It pointed out that the system of pubs and restaurants requiring customers to leave their names and phone numbers on a paper list is “hugely inefficient and unreliable”.

“Digital identity would solve this problem and would lift some of the burden on hospitality and other service sectors,” it said.

The trade body also said many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are struggling to find a way to operate safely in a “remote-first world”.

“They urgently need corporate identity solutions to streamline the onboarding and verification process, one which works for both the party proving the identity, as well as the verifying party,” it said.

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