The practical steps needed to accelerate a UK digital identity ecosystem

In February, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published the initial “alpha” version of its digital identity trust framework, and key players in the sector have since had the chance to review and feed back to the first draft document.

The framework – a set of standards, rules and best practices – is intended to bring clarity to the development of an ecosystem of digital ID schemes that can be used across the private and public sectors, and came as a response to a 2019 call for evidence.

These recent developments from government, alongside market movement and changing consumer demands, illustrate the increasing focus on the necessity of digital identity solutions in the UK. The creation of this framework, regardless of specific shortcomings, should be welcomed as a positive step in establishing a digital identification system that can be fully trusted, mass adopted and benefit the entire general public. Government endorsement for digital ID is, of course, also welcome.

Public-private collaboration

However, a successful public-private collaboration is imperative to ensure the success of digital ID. With McKinsey reporting that digital ID could unlock economic value equivalent to 3% of GDP in the UK, a successful partnership between the sectors will be a key to quickly deploy a UK solution and help stimulate economic recovery.

The initial government alpha framework will inevitably benefit from continuous development and improvement in line with feedback from key stakeholders in the private sector who are operating in the digital ID space. Certainly, there are specific adjustments and additions that can be made to the framework to ensure it supports the creation of scalable solutions that will benefit all UK citizens to their fullest potential.

Existing standards

One such addition to be taken from the private sector is the leveraging of existing private sector standards and infrastructure – such as anti-money laundering (AML) and open banking – to minimise the cost of implementation.

There is no need for the creation of new identities – existing identities are already established with banks and can be reused
Martin Wilson, Digital Identity Net

There is an opportunity to build on existing capabilities and trusted data repositories already in existence to accelerate deployment and shorten the timeframe to mass availability and adoption of digital identities, which, in turn, will maximise the resulting benefits for the UK.

There is no need for the creation of new identities – existing identities authenticated to AML standards are already established with banks and can be reused. What’s more, using such systems means almost entire market coverage from day one, with 97% of the adult UK population immediately having access through their own bank account.

The UK is already behind many other countries in the identity space. With our world-leading open banking capabilities, we have an opportunity to take the lead in identity, too.

Social inclusion

As well as unlocking economic growth, good digital ID systems hold the promise of fostering increased inclusion, providing greater access to goods and services to all. This inclusion needs to, and can be, achieved by UK digital ID if broad adoption and interoperability drive the creation of policy.

The current digital exclusion is much more than simply a lack of reliable online access, with the digital shift creating new challenges for individuals to prove their identity online. This impacts access to finance, health and other essential services. Just in the past year, major issues have included citizens not being able to access Universal Credit or Covid-19 home-testing kits due to identification failures.

Using open banking APIs to build a digital ID system presents a fast and low-cost route, enabling broad adoption and inclusion through its wide availability. Many UK citizens already have formal identification, but cannot use it effectively in the digital world. Allowing them to do so will unlock value by achieving increased inclusion and formalisation, which helps to reduce fraud and increase transparency.

A specific case to demonstrate such value is access to healthcare. During the pandemic, some online or order-to-home services required patients to identify themselves via credit-checking companies, which were using electoral rolls to verify individuals.

Those not on the open register – often for safety or privacy purposes – could not be verified properly and were refused health services. This disproportionately affects more vulnerable members of society. Established processes, such as securely transferring personal data from open banking APIs, would lower the risk of exclusion from vital services due to issues with digital identification processes. Access to government datasets would also broaden the options for serving those with “thin files” in financial services datasets.

Open standards

Finally, future alignment of working and standards between the public and private sector must be well established to enable the development of better digital identity services in both sectors. Better collaboration between the two will progress the adoption and successes of digital ID in the UK, as well as shorten the time to outcomes.

Changes in the provision of identity services within the public sector itself – by aligning its standards with the private sector – should also be considered to enable competitive “buy versus build” decisions, minimise the cost to the taxpayer and increase speed of delivery.

This release of the alpha trust framework has sparked discussion on the future of digital ID in the UK and has provided a starting point for improved collaboration in the industry. The next iteration of the framework is set to be released in summer 2021, and we are looking forward to continuing opportunities to contribute to the development of the UK’s journey with digital ID systems.

Martin Wilson is CEO of Digital Identity Net.