“What are we going to do if people can’t come in anymore?” texted Anna Hirschfeld, Director of digital transformation consultancy Public Digital, to her colleague in 2020. This was two weeks before lockdown hit the United Kingdom, while she was working in the pensions department and responsible for disbursing unemployment benefits.

Public agencies around the world had the same question in mind. Many shifted online quickly so citizens could still access essential services, such as grants and healthcare. Digital identity systems were particularly helpful in this pivot.

At GovInsider’s recent AI x GOV summit, global experts on digital identity shared how the tech helped governments provide unemployment benefits, track vaccination status, and conduct contact tracing.

Providing crucial services

Digital identity services are valuable tools in helping governments provide crucial services quickly – as many countries realised during the pandemic. These systems allow online government services to verify citizens when they log in without them having to register for multiple accounts.

Digital identity helped the UK cope with the spike in demand for pre-existing services, such as unemployment benefits, in the pandemic. Unemployment claims in the UK rose from 10,000 a day to 100,000, Hirschfeld shared. The government relied on Universal Credit, a social service platform, to disburse grants.

New services such as contact tracing become critical during this crisis as well. Digital identity helped New Zealand’s government securely trace interactions between citizens and warn them when they were at risk, shared Colin Wallis, Executive Director of Digital Identity New Zealand.

Similarly, digital identity supported India in distributing vaccines, shared Debashis Nag, Regional Digital Transformation Lead at UNDP Asia-Pacific. This helped India’s government roll out vaccinations to citizens, track vaccination statuses and manage the vaccine supply chain, he explained.

Beyond the pandemic, digital identity can play a crucial role in providing services to remote communities. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has developed a cost-effective digital identity programme for remote villagers in Papua New Guinea, shared Ozzeir Khan, Director of the Digital Innovation and Architecture Division, ADB.

The villagers received physical cards linked to an Android device that syncs data with a government database, shared GovInsider. This gave them access to banking services, SIM cards, and healthcare and education services, Khan said.

The project prioritised getting the service to citizens quickly over including bells and whistles. “When we’re looking at a large commercial city in a developed country, it’s about efficiency. Here, it’s about first time ID issuances. We’re not trying to make it super efficient, we’re trying to make it,” he pointed out.

“We’re not trying to make it super efficient, we’re trying to make it.”

Building trust with people and processes

However, there are concerns about whether governments can secure sensitive data from breaches or if they will misuse this data themselves. Governments need to build trust in digital identity by working with all communities and building secure systems, shared the speakers.

One way to secure government systems is with a Zero Trust framework, suggested Scott Hesford, Director of Solutions Engineering Asia Pacific at cybersecurity firm BeyondTrust. Employees should only have access to what they need – no more, no less. This helps to limit access to sensitive citizen data.

Digital identity data needs to be secured with strong cyber response teams and cyber security tools, agreed Nag. Some countries in Asia have adopted cloud systems with in-built security features to protect citizen data, he shared.

Governments need to be especially sensitive to communities where identities are more fluid.

For example, some Native American communities have names that change over the course of their lives, which does not cohere with Western notions of identity, Hirschfeld highlighted.

To include a diversity of perspectives, the UK government brought in representatives from marginalised communities when building digital verification systems, she shared.

Similarly, when ADB was developing digital ID systems for Papua New Guinea, they gathered whole communities to determine who their trusted leaders were, Khan said. Following that, they worked with these traditional village elders to verify and onboard poor people with little documentation.

A standard set of rules that digital identity providers have to play by will be important in maintaining trust, particularly in countries which lack national identity programs. New Zealand’s Digital Identity Services Trust Framework will set out requirements for a minimum level of security within their tools, noted Wallis.

The future of digital ID

Perhaps the future of digital services will no longer depend on identity, shared Khan. He highlighted that there may be a possibility of delinking ID from social services in the future.

Hirschfeld cautioned that as digital identity becomes more prevalent, governments should avoid creating two-tiered societies where some communities have digital identity and others don’t. For example, people in Uganda need to present fingerprints to register for an ID card. Those who are unable to do so due to a disability may be excluded from government services.

Digital identity systems were crucial during the pandemic. For now, it looks like digital identity systems will be the future of government-citizen interactions. But inclusion and trust are key.