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Digital ID in a post-pandemic world

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Woman holding phone, digital ID access on screen

Over the last 18 months, life during a global pandemic has ushered in a new era of contactless convenience where a low-touch economy is thriving. As a result, our digital ID has now become the key to almost every transaction. Everything from touch-and-go payments on public transport to ordering a Big Mac from a touch screen and tapping a phone or even smartwatch to pay for the meal has become the norm.

Likewise, our digital ID is used to buy goods online or in physical stores using a contactless card or smartphone. Authentication from facial recognition or fingerprints now feels like second nature as digital natives leave their wallets, purses, and loose change at home. But how much privacy is being traded for the convenience that we all enjoy?

Although you may not realize it, you already have a digital identity.

Every digital purchase or online activity is captured. For example, every Google search you've made on mobile, desktop, or tablets for over a decade is searchable at history.google.com/history. Digital communications across Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp are also essentially managed by Facebook. The usual suspects in big tech store your location data along with every like, click, and swipe along the way. But are things beginning to get even creepier?

Vaccine passports

Across the world, members of society are increasingly being asked to prove their fitness to work or travel. The freedom to work, shop, and travel could be determined by presenting a QR code to the immigration officer at the airport, your boss, or before entering your local coffee shop. In under two years, consumer behavior has undergone a digital transformation with the mainstream adoption of verifiable digital credentials that unlock freedoms for the double-vaccinated.

Here in 2021, vaccines are widely thought to be the best way out of the pandemic by reducing the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19. As a result, governments are exploring how vaccine passports can help with the opening up of the economy, schools, travel, and society again.

Although this approach may solve the immediate problems, many are becoming increasingly concerned about what life could be like in 5 years and beyond.

Suppose Covid-19 was to mutate in such a way that an annual jab would be required for the foreseeable future. Despite the best intentions of authorities, we could sleepwalk our way into a new world where digital IDs and vaccines determine which parts of society citizens are allowed to participate in. If the data from these passports were eventually sold to private companies, it could result in being prejudicial to individuals' interests.

Conspiracy theorists have warned about forced vaccinations, digital ID cards, and the renunciation of private property for many months. But what does the future really hold? Are freedoms attached to a vaccine passport temporary? Or could they become permanent? Unfortunately, this is a debate that is seldom discussed in the media. But it needs to happen to build trust and confidence between authorities and their communities as we bridge the gap in a digital divide.

Digital identity wallets

In a digital world where many manage their entire life from their smartphone, proving your identity when buying a new house or getting your dream job can feel like taking a step back in time. The additional effort and often expense when locating physical documents is something that The EU's executive commission aims to tackle with a European Digital Identity Wallet.

The EU commission declared that the new e-wallet wouldn't be mandatory and will consist of an easy-to-use smartphone app. It will enable users to store electronic forms of identification and other official documents.

Everything from driver's licenses, prescriptions, proof of age, and school qualifications could be added to the app, making physical copies a thing of the past.

Although the plans might sound a little sinister, the approach is aimed at reigning in big tech companies and how they access, control, and leverage personal data. For example, the EU digital wallet could enable users to access the services of Google or Facebook instead of their "platform-specific" accounts. In doing so, it empowers users to decide how much data they want to share to protect their identity.

The move could also pave the way for biometric age verification for adult websites and social media registration. In a recent press release, the British government also revealed its plans to secure digital identities and make them as trusted as passports. Governments are promoting digital identities as a way to prove your identity or age without disclosing personal data such as date of birth, full birth name, or address.

The future of digital identity

The World Economic Forum started a discussion of how digital identity can improve lives in a post-COVID-19 world. But there is a fear that individuals will increasingly be asked to prove and validate their identities in the future along with the vaccination status to access fundamental freedoms. The plans to secure digital identities and provide greater transparency when verifying identities sound like a great idea in principle.

The more significant questions are around the fear of mass surveillance and censorship under the guise of protective measures. If every aspect of our online activity is tracked, are our viewing habits and lifestyle choices at risk of being leaked? As a result of these increasing concerns, policymakers are now challenged with moving as quickly as the tech companies implementing solutions.

There is no escaping the reality that our digital identities are no longer just about social media platforms and online banking. 

Healthcare, e-government services, travel, and the emergence of smart cities all present a strong case for how we can all maintain control of our personal data and far-reaching digital identity.

The future of paper documents remains uncertain as digital ID looks destined to become the new normal. With the right frameworks, digital identity methods could streamline and speed up the often frustrating identification process while reducing costs, risk, and help in the prevention of fraud. But whether we are destined for a tech utopia or dystopia remains uncertain at this point in time.

Comments
Graham
Graham
prefix 1 month ago
Unless the governments of the world want to be left behind, using legacy digital systems, they should look to blockchain implementation for digital ID. Though of course the decentralised nature of blockchain frightens those who don’t understand it and everyone wants to develop their own proprietary standard rather than a universally recognised interoperable standard.
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