Are digital identities the future of identity?

Image credit: e-Residency

We’re all used to providing personal data when opening a bank account or similar because every organisation handling customer funds has a regulatory obligation to know their customer and mitigate against the risk of financial crime.

Typically every time we sign up with a new financial services provider we have to provide the same personal information, including at times, evidence of a passport or driving licence and even that mythical creature, the paper utility bill (not sure when I last received one of those). The alternative to providing this information every time is a verified persistent digital identity that can be re-used across multiple providers.

Attempts at creating a verified digital identity in the UK have yet to see much success. The government initiative GOV.UK Verify is a bold attempt to create a digital identity, using private sector identity providers. It has gained traction with central government departments but limited in local government and the private sector. So far it has failed to completely replace the ‘old’ Government Gateway credentials which many of us still use to access our government data although recent developments suggest this will happen soon. The government hopes the private sector will drive the future development of the Verify programme and we’ll have to wait and see if that happens.

There are some stand out success stories in Europe for digital identities. The Estonian e-Residency programme which extends the Estonian national identity programme to non-residents has been more successful than even the team who created it expected. This Government as a Service (GaaS) scheme allows non-residents to set up a company in Estonia, open a bank account, digitally sign documents; all whilst being location independent. My e-Residency card always provokes an interesting conversation around the concept of a verified digital identity. 

Sweden’s BankID programme has also seen success as a digital identity that can be used across multiple services. I have the option to use it to sign in to my bank account  and it greatly simplifies a process that would otherwise involve entering multiple pieces of data.

Creating a digital identity needs to be a robust process because once created it will typically remove the need for further identity checks (the whole point!). The e-Residency application process involves the Estonian Police & Border Guard Board receiving copies of identity documents, running background data checks, taking fingerprints and checking your passport at an Estonian Embassy when collecting your e-Residency card.

Digital identities have the scope to deliver a great customer experience, making life much simpler for individuals and removing friction and frustration from customer onboarding. It remains to be seen how much traction they gain over the next few years.

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