New identity technology could radically transform the relationship between citizen and state, explains Maisie Borrows
The United Kingdom’s border is under scrutiny. In Brexit negotiations, government has made its aims for frictionless movement between the European Union and UK clear, and is looking to technology to achieve this. More broadly the UK border is under mounting pressure. 123.3 million people entered the UK in 2015; on the current trajectory this will double by 2050. A radical transformation of how people travel through our border is urgently needed.
How this is achieved plays into the heart of a wider debate on how identity is shared with government. To enter the country, an individual must prove their identity to the government, the same as proving identity when paying a tax return or applying for a benefit.
The most common way to prove identity is through a paper-based, photographic document, such as a passport or driving license. This is not keeping pace with digital innovation, with individuals increasingly used to proving their identity online. Manual passport checks at airports are inefficient and this is reflected in the mounting pressure on our borders. This form of identity proof is also not secure. Documents are prone to loss or theft, and this can potentially lead to identity fraud.
Government needs to haul identity management into the digital age. An identity app on an individual’s smartphone would be one solution to this. An individual travelling through the UK border would share relevant passport and clearance information with border control, allowing pre-clearance to enter. Dubai is piloting this to provide gateless access to the country by collecting this personal data early and then using facial-recognition cameras when people arrive in the country to identify those who are granted leave to enter.
Such sensitive information must be shared securely. Blockchain technology can achieve this. Blockchain is a distributed, peer-to-peer database that is virtually unhackable and uneditable. The data it holds is certified by all members of the network via a shared ledger, ensuring that there is one version of the truth and that the network is continuously updated. The technology has traditionally been associated with cryptocurrencies, largely because it underpins Bitcoin.
Blockchain can be applied to identity management. The distributed nature of blockchain shifts ownership of personal data; rather than various government departments, the individual has control over their data. This is largely aligned to the evolving trend in data protection legislation. Blockchain’s distributed nature increases the security of identity data and is more efficient than traditional methods for holding that data because government departments do not duplicate information or enter data erroneously.
Given its key selling points, there are broader applications for an identity app powered by blockchain, which go beyond identity verification at the border. The blockchain-supported Estonia ID is a digital identity card that grants Estonians access to public, financial and medical services. Virtually all of Estonian public services have now moved online, and Estonian citizens can also use their mobile-ID to digitally sign documents and vote through their phone’s web browser.
Citizens in Estonia also have more control over their personal data. They have a unique identifier allowing them access to their health records and to review requests by third parties to access their data. Zero-knowledge proof algorithms, which are a way to prove something is true without conveying any additional information, can also be added to the blockchain to further increase citizen control. When needing to prove a permanent address in the UK to access a public service, zero-knowledge proof could allow a citizen to confirm that they have a UK address without having to give over full address details.
The UK government has run a number of proof-of-concept exercises on blockchain. In 2016 the department for work and pensions trialled using blockchain to track benefit recipients’ spending. Government could go further, however. Recent analyses by Reform showed that across government departments 76 per cent of identity verification forms asked for national insurance numbers. Blockchain could automate this. Doing this would be one step towards achieving shadow digital economy minister Liam Byrne’s ambition to make the UK ‘the world’s most advanced digital society’.
Giving people choice over how much data to share could be a powerful tool to improve public trust in government. Public trust in government data management is currently low, with 46 per cent of the population not trusting government with their data in some instances. A blockchain-powered identity model would mean a radical change in the relationship between citizen and state.
The border questions raised by Brexit mean that now is the right time for government to resolve wider issues on how best to prove identity when accessing a public service. While still in its infancy, it is clear that blockchain technology can enable a better identity model. A single public service identity, underpinned by blockchain, would mean a far more efficient and secure system for everyone.
Maisie Borrows is a researcher at the thinktank Reform. She tweets @maisieborrows
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