Virtual and mobile identification technologies are poised to replace physical methods. Public authorities who have a clear digitalisation strategy will certainly reap the benefits. Digital identity is an opportunity especially for emerging countries as it can unlock citizen participation in regions and for populations that are otherwise difficult to reach. Moreover, these countries have the potential to leapfrog into the digital era without carrying the legacy of traditional and heavy identification programmes.
For full participation in civil society, the ability to prove one’s identity is vital. An official, verifiable identity is what makes a person a citizen and what enables that citizen to participate in society. Without it, people remain invisible to government agencies and other service providers, and may struggle to gain access to life’s essentials – such as education, financial services, welfare, healthcare, property ownership and the right to vote. A major consequence for countries where large parts of the population don’t have an official identity, is a much slower rate of development in comparison with neighbouring countries. The United Nations have stated that by 2030 countries should “provide legal identity for all, including birth registration” as key target for the “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions” Sustainable Development Goal.
So today, the need for proof of identity is stronger than ever. But the way people want to establish and confirm their identity is shifting – from the familiar physical identity card to more versatile and convenient online methods. This shift presents challenges as well as opportunities. In emerging countries in particular, digital identity can be a catalyst for all kinds of progress – but achieving this will be a complex process.
“In emerging countries in particular, digital identity can be a catalyst for all kinds of progress – but achieving this will be a complex process.”
Physical identity – the pros and cons
Clearly, significant changes are imminent, but what is the current situation? In many countries with an effective identity system, the electronic identity card is king. When created and deployed correctly, it’s a reliable way to prove your identity to relying parties. It protects privacy and guards against identity fraud. Both in the physical world and online.
But as people change the way they access the online world – using their smartphone or tablet rather than a computer – a smartcard is becoming less useful. Hence the growing need for a mobile identity system.
The mobile alternative
A truly mobile system will be highly convenient and liberating for citizens. It will open up more services and transactions, and make them easier to use. For both public and private service providers, the main benefit of mobile identity is the opportunity to improve and expand services as well as adding new ones, while reducing costs. Secure authentication with mobile devices will enable providers to offer personalised services that would otherwise be impossible.
“For both public and private service providers, the main benefit of mobile identity is the opportunity to improve and expand services as well as adding new ones, while reducing costs.”
In the physical world too, citizens will be able to use their smartphone for proof of identity. Mobile identity can actually bridge the gap between online and offline transactions. Take, for example, a trip to another country. The points of interaction requiring proof of identity are numerous. Applying for visas, booking flights, hotels and car hire, check-in, security and border control at airports, check-in at hotels, and activities at the destination are just some of them. Some are carried out online; some in person. All could be completed using one mobile device for identification and authentication.
The challenges of progress
As mobile identity becomes established, there will inevitably be new challenges. These disruptive technologies are creating opportunities and open the door to new entrants into the identity services market, some influencing developments outside of government control.
The rise of mobile identity is largely consumer driven. The fast-growing appetite for online transactions is accelerating the virtualisation of identity credentials. No doubt this can be good for users, but it requires a totally different approach. With physical identity, the design, production and delivery of identity cards has a start and an end. But with mobile identity, constant vigilance is vital. Technology is always changing, and smartphone apps need updating. Keeping the whole system working is an ongoing, fast-growing task.
Moreover, mobile identity means relying on citizens’ own mobile devices, which are open to security risk and difficult to control. If the owner of a mobile operating system decides to stop supporting a feature, the impact could be very serious. If someone drops or loses their phone, they don’t have their proof of identity anymore. And even worse, if a phone is stolen, someone else could have their proof of identity.
Developments to date
Pitfalls or not, mobile identity is here to stay. ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, fostered the international standard for a mobile driving licence app (mDL). It contains all the visual aspects of a physical driving licence – and all the data, that a smartphone can transfer to traffic police , other authorities or third parties for validation. Its main use will be in the physical world, when a driver needs to prove who he or she is to a police officer. But it will also be useful online – for example, when renting a car or as a substitute photo ID for proof of age in the physical world.
Confirming the trend, ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization is developing an international standard for a digital travel credential (DTC). Again, this will be useful in the physical world – for proof of identity at border control desks, for example – and also online, when booking flights.
Both the mDL and DTC will do more than prove identity. They can also confirm a person’s credentials. The mDL can show that someone is qualified to drive certain kinds of vehicles, and state his blood type in case of an accident. And the DTC proves nationality just like a passport, but can also store your visa.
These mobile innovations also offer another major benefit: they can be updated online. Any changes to a driving licence or passport currently take time and administrative effort. With the mobile versions, they can happen instantly.
If we can combine the features of the mDL and DTC, we will have a full virtual, mobile identity app.
The value of mobile identity to fast-emerging countries
The adoption of mobile identity can accelerate the expansion of many vital government services. Even where some people don’t yet have a smartphone, an initial introduction of the technology to those who do can pave the way for wider accessibility in the future.
"Even where some people don’t yet have a smartphone, an initial introduction of the technology to those who do can pave the way for wider accessibility in the future.”
Welfare, health and education are obvious examples of a mobile identity app can help improve quality of life and national prosperity. A more specific opportunity lies in agriculture, in countries where farmers receive an annual allowance for seeds. Mobile identity would enable them to register remotely for the service, and manage their allowance from any rural location.
Another example is driving-licence fraud. In countries where this is a problem, a mDL requiring verification of every driver’s credentials would prevent unqualified individuals getting behind the wheel, and road safety would improve.
Realising the benefits requires a good analysis of a country’s needs
The difference mobile identity can make depends on a country’s specific challenges, aims and ambitions. Also, does a government have a preference for outsourcing or for developing the expertise internally? There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
One thing is for sure: developing and implementing mobile identity systems is much less straightforward than issuing a physical document. As we observed earlier, managing mobile identity is an ongoing process, demanding constant attention.
“Managing mobile identity is an ongoing process, demanding constant attention.”
With mobile identity, governments have many questions to answer. If the app is going to be used for online authentication, the government has to be involved. But then, for instance, is it going to manage all logins for all banks, for all banking customers in its country? Will the banks want this? Will consumers want their government to know when they log into their bank, and which banks they use?
This is just one example of the issues mobile identity can present. But the benefits we’ve outlined are likely to justify the necessary changes in policy and practices.
How Zetes can help
Zetes is a key player in developing and implementing the technology behind mobile identity systems. In this role, she considers all the issues currently facing governments, and anticipates the questions likely to arise in the future – and then providing the support needed to face these issues and answer these questions. Any government looking to introduce mobile identity will need this long-term involvement, from experts prepared to stand by them for the next 10, or even 20, years.
So where Zetes can really help governments is as a supplier of managed services. Very often this involves carrying out build-operate-and-transfer (BOT) schemes on behalf of governments, usually for periods of 10 to 15 years. This way, Zetes takes responsibility for financing, designing, constructing and running the identity system, while importing all the necessary knowledge, expertise and resources. The BOT approach removes the need for a government’s direct investment in the system. It is a highly practical way to realise the potential of the most advanced methods of proving identity.