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February 23, 2022updated 27 Jun 2022 9:53am

Is the UK finally catching up on digital identity?

A new app is being developed to help citizens prove their identity, as the UK slowly moves towards a single digital ID for public services.

By Sophia Waterfield

The UK government has selected Deloitte to develop a smartphone app to verify the identities of people on the electoral roll, signalling the country is moving a step closer to a single digital identification for public services. The UK has lagged behind other countries when it comes to introducing digital ID, but this development may come at an opportune time, with citizens becoming more comfortable accessing services digitally in the wake of the pandemic.

UK digital identity

New digital systems will be used to verify the identity of people on the electoral register (Photo by Rob Pinney/Getty Images)

Deloitte will deliver the app, which will enable citizens to prove their identity and be used by electoral administrators in local authorities to process applications and maintain the electoral register. The app will also enable people to access other services through the One Login programme, which is being developed by Government Digital Services as a way of offering a single access point for public services.

Deloitte’s contract, commenced earlier this month, is worth up to £4.8m over two years, though this is not the guaranteed spend, a Cabinet Office spokesman told Tech Monitor. “Through the single sign-on and identity checking system, we are working to build a fast, simple, secure way for people to access government services online,” the spokesman added.

UK digital ID: what are the challenges for government?

As it stands, UK government departments use different ways to identify citizens online. Some use Verify, a system which was originally intended to be adopted by all government departments when it launched in 2013, while others use Government Gateway. These will all be phased out as part of One Login.

“The UK is far behind many in the provision of a digital identity service,” explains Martin Wilson, CEO of Digital Identity Net, an identity verification platform. “In Belgium, Norway and Sweden this trusted utility is provided by a platform linked to the banks in those regions and as a result, they have seen strong adoption and usage.”

BankID Sweden, for example, gets 840 interactions per user per year and is used by over 98% of users aged between 21 and 67 years old. In Norway, BankID has 99% market penetration within the adult population and 215 transactions per user per year. In Belgium, over 60% of its population has been onboarded to the itsme app.

In the UK, the experience is very different. “Verifying identity online is painful and expensive, requiring people to repeatedly fill out forms, scan documents, take awkward selfies and share sensitive, personal information,” Wilson says. “People should be able to safely and easily prove who they are online, while having complete control of their own data and preventing access by unauthorised third parties.”

Digital ID: lessons from Estonia

Digital pioneer Estonia was one of the first European countries to embrace digital identity verification. The country’s E-ID and digital signature service was launched in 2002 and securely identifies people using public and private e-services in the country.

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The digital ID card also helped with i-voting, which launched in 2005. According to e-Estonia, one third of the votes in parliamentary elections are cast online, from over 110 countries. Essentially, it doesn’t matter where an Estonian citizen is; they can always authenticate using their ID-card or Mobile-ID.

Estonia also has digital services such as e-health and e-prescription as well as being the first country in the cloud. All its critical databases and services are backed up in a secure data centre in Luxembourg. Since its inception, 99% of Estonians have an ID-card and digital signatures saved 2% of GDP annually. As of 2021, 1.4bn digital signatures have been made.

But while countries such as Estonia have been able to start their digital identity schemes from scratch, the UK government is hampered by negative sentiment that surrounds previous identity card schemes, argues Rob Anderson, principal analyst for public sector at GlobalData. A national identity card was proposed in 2003, but was scrapped in 2010 after objections were raised about the cost and the types of data that would be held. “The ID debate in the UK is so politically charged, resulting from the ID card fiasco of 20 years ago and the poor communication to the public of the benefits of a purely digital ID," Anderson says.

Indeed, while there is public demand for digital services in the UK, significant distrust in the government remains. According to the 2022 Digital Trust Report published by digital identity platform Okta, 76% of the British public would be comfortable having their data incorporated into a digital ID card. However, 34% of the population do not trust the government’s digital services due to data fears (56%), overcomplicated transactions (21%) and past issues they have encountered using digital services (20%).

The pandemic has opened-up UK citizens to going digital, especially with the NHS Covid-19 app, says Ben King, chief security officer for the EMEA region at Okta. “Familiarity with vaccine passport tech is laying the foundations for digital IDs, without many people even realising," King says. "Digital IDs are a natural evolution for future verification. But the technology needs to be finetuned before it hits the mainstream.”

How will a digital ID help the UK government

The UK is not alone in developing digital identity systems. According to Gartner, at least a third of national governments will offer their citizens mobile-based identity wallets by 2024. However, only a minority will be interoperable across sectors and jurisdictions.

In its “Top 10 Government Technology Trends for 2022” guide for public sector CIOs, released this week, the analyst house says governments will need to adopt a “total experience” strategy, such as One Login, to successfully transform government services and avoid friction. “Government and public sector CIOs now need to sustain the momentum of digital acceleration after the initial chaos of the pandemic,” said Arthur Mickoleit, research director at Gartner.

Having a single system spanning all government departments can help with data sharing and deliver a more efficient service to citizens. "Organisations that promote data sharing will outperform their peers on most business value metrics by 2023,” the Gartner guide says. “This will need a cultural shift from compartmentalisation of data use to re-use of data to better serve citizens. Government CIOs need to lead from the front to enable this cultural shift.”

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