Being able to seamlessly access public services through your smartphone might sound easy in today’s digital age, but the successful implementation of such a system remains a distant dream for most countries across Europe. While some nations on the continent continue to grapple with deep-rooted privacy issues, other states have successfully spearheaded digital identity programs with remarkable success. What explains this disparity in digitalising public services?
In the European Union, plans for a European digital identity were first unveiled in 2019, with further iterations and frameworks for secure and trusted platforms announced last year. The regional bloc’s ambitious goals go beyond mere digitalisation policies to encompass the entirety of the European experience. “This is a unique opportunity to take us all further into experiencing what it means to live in Europe, and to be European,” said Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president for the European Commission.
EU ambitions for digital identity in Europe
The EU has also set targets for the number of users it expects to be using digital identities by the end of the decade. In the Digital Compass plan announced last year, member states are expected to ensure that 80% of citizens will be using digital identities by 2030. The current state of play for digital identity across Europe suggests that most countries across the bloc will struggle to meet this goal. While most member states have recognised the need for digital identities, progress has been unevenly spread out creating a patchwork of different approaches.
Just five European countries have digital identity programmes considered as ‘mature,’ defined as more than 40% of its citizens actively using such services, according to analysis by the consulting firm Oliver Wyman last year. The majority of countries in Europe have already implemented national digital identity schemes, but adoption rates remain low. Most notably, the United Kingdom remains mired in trust and privacy issues when it comes to digital identities, while southern states like Greece, Bulgaria and Romania have yet to implement such policies.
Tech Monitor provides a snapshot of successful case studies of national digital identity programmes and some of the core issues preventing their rollout elsewhere in Europe.
Five years ago, a private consortium of seven banks and mobile operators called Belgium Mobile launched the country’s national digital identity scheme. The 'itsme' service comes in the form of a mobile phone application which allows Belgians to access a wide range of public and private services, including logging into their health insurance funds, confirming payments to an online bank, or signing a loan online. Since then, more than six million Belgians - approximately 80% of the population - have used the service, with 25 to 35 million transactions completed each month according to the digital ID service provider.
The rapid uptake of digital ID in Belgium has clearly made an impact on the lives of its citizens, at least judged by the decline of alternative methods of physical identification. According to a recently published survey conducted by the Thales Group, just 30% of Belgians use their driving licences to identify themselves, compared to the European average of 48%. Similarly, only 19% of Belgians now use their physical passports, while the regional average stands at 30%.
But the same survey also revealed particular issues that Belgians faced with their digital identity transactions. According to the study, more than a third (33%) of Belgians found the renewal process for their identity documents to be the “most cumbersome” use case they have faced, followed closely by purchasing a high-value item such as cars or houses at 32%. The use of the itsme digital ID scheme is used in 56% and 49% of these two use-cases respectively, the survey found.
In contrast, just across the border from Belgium is a case study on how the rollout of digital identity policies can stall. Launched by the French government in early 2016, FranceConnect was introduced to simplify citizens’ use of public services, including pension entitlements and driving licence and passport applications. A total of five digital ID providers are part of the FranceConnect scheme, but only two offer services that meet the required security levels specified by the EU’s security regulations, according to a study by the Thales Group.
Despite more than 30 million users reportedly using the FranceConnect service, bureaucracy appears to hold back the rapid rollout of digitalisation policies. The Thales survey found that almost a quarter (24%) of French respondents are still asked to show a physical version of their ID when accessing public services, compared to just 10% of Swedes. Almost 80% of French citizens are also the most likely to have scans and copies of official documents on their phone, the highest proportion compared to other European countries surveyed.
The Thales Group said that the use of digital documents is far behind other European countries and that France's ‘reputation for cultural resistance to change’ might be the main reason for the continued use of physical identity documents. But security fears about the use of digital identity documents in France also appear to be one of the main barriers to adoption, with 77% indicating that it was a concern, compared to a global average of 66%. Despite this, the French indicated the highest level of interest (85%) in the European Digital Identity Wallet scheme which suggests that the country is not as averse to new technologies as it might seem.
Meanwhile in Germany, a similar trend has played out within the digital identity space. In 2017, the German Digital ID replaced the country’s physical identity card and made it possible for citizens to use it as a way to identify and authenticate themselves online. Four years later, a mobile phone app was launched to support the Digital ID, with more than 25 million users reportedly using the service, according to the Thales Group.
The numbers behind their recent survey illustrate a situation where citizens are still highly reluctant to embrace digitalisation, especially when it comes to sensitive personal data. More than 80% of Germans use their physical ID cards while slightly over a fifth (21%) surveyed still use banking reference documents as their main form of identification. Just 13% said that they were currently using the official Digital ID actively.
Some have blamed the lack of progress in digitalisation on the lack of government coordination, while others have pointed to the country’s so-called “digital-shyness” and an enduring focus on paper-based bureaucracy. But perhaps the country’s general experience of authoritarianism throughout the 20th century is what underpins the glacial pace of digital transformation in Germany. Leena Simon, a member of the German digital rights organisation Digitalcourage, told Deutsche Welle last year that she felt it was “invasive” for the state to demand biometric prints. "I don't understand why I should have to give the state access to my prints when I haven't broken the law," she said.
MyGovID was launched in late 2016 as a secure online identity to access a range of Irish government services. At first, this included just social welfare and tax platforms, but has now expanded to most e-Government services. Since then, the country has set ambitious targets for widespread digitalisation amongst its citizens. Its chief information officer Barry Lowry has predicted that around 90% of Irish citizens could be using MyGovID by the end of the decade, far above the 80% target for digital ID coverage by 2030 set by the EU.
As it stands, the user penetration rate of MyGovID is around 38%, but Lowry believes that the rate of acceleration sparked by the pandemic will be a crucial factor in meeting those targets. The transparency of the use of citizens' data and communicating that clearly will also be important. “As long as it is used transparently, I think the public will be pretty cool with this. The data sharing and governance act requires that every data-sharing agreement is done under that act,” he said. “That means you will know what data of yours is shared by which department and you’ll be able to challenge that.”
Beyond government initiatives, innovation in the digital identity sector within Ireland also appears to be flourishing, with private companies offering a range of products. Earlier this year, it was reported that a fledgling Irish start-up called Pfpid is releasing digital ID cards aimed at strengthening the verification process when signing up for crypto wallets. Meanwhile, the digital ID company Jumio has taken strides in applying artificial intelligence in biometrics to streamline the onboarding process for banking and financial institutions in Ireland.
No survey of digital identity initiatives in Europe would be complete without mentioning the remarkable success of Estonia in this field. The country’s digital ID journey started two decades ago with the introduction of an electronic ID card and three years later, the use of digital identities in core functions of public life such as voting was introduced as early as 2005. In 2018, the digital ID system was upgraded to include additional security features, a contactless interface and a QR code functionality.
The results of the country’s digital identity scheme are clear for all to see. According to the Estonian government, 99% of its services can be accessed online and there is evidence that these services are indeed being used. The Estonian digital ID can be used as digital signatures during national elections and in 2019, 44% of citizens used the option to cast their vote. Almost all Estonian tax returns are also filed online.
The country’s rapid success in public sector digitalisation is made all the more remarkable considering its violent history with Soviet-era surveillance. It appears that clear and consistent government communication efforts in convincing Estonians that their data will be treated with the utmost privacy have worked. “Our government promised a few things when it started to create digital Estonia,” the former president Kersti Kaljulaid told Fast Company last year. “And this was, it will not use my data without my permission, and it will not use my data without my knowledge.”
While Kaljulaid also stressed the point that Estonia’s success cannot be simply replicated elsewhere - the country has a population of just 1.3 million people - the lessons of clear communication from the public and private sector on digital identities does matter. A survey conducted in November last year found that just 15% of Britons considered themselves well-informed on the debates surrounding national digital IDs, while more than half said they were not, or knew nothing about these issues.
This lack of public understanding on digital identity in Europe goes far beyond the UK. Another survey published last month by iProov of 16,000 people around the world found that just 58% of respondents understood what the term ‘digital identity’ actually meant.
Italians appeared to have the strongest understanding of digital identities at close to 80%, but this figure dropped sharply for Spain and the UK. Approximately 57% of Spaniards understood the term, while almost half of Britons surveyed do not yet fully understand what digital identity is supposed to mean.