This article is the second part of our previous story, We May Soon Have Global Digital Identities. Although you can skip reading part one, we recommend checking it out before continuing!
As we discussed in the first part, the United Kingdom is in the initial phases of its digital ID systems. Besides the UK, we also talked about digital identities systems under development in the United States and India.
China and Canada have also proposed similar plans.
Canada’s Program for Digital Identities
Ontario planned to implement a province-wide digital identity program by the end of 2022. However, its rollout has been delayed until the end of this year.
The digital identities initiative, dubbed as Ontario’s DI, Digital Identity Program, was initially announced earlier in 2020 as a part of an action plan to make government and public services more accessible and flexible (1, 2).
However, the implementation was delayed because the associated ministry, Digital Government, had prioritized the Verify Ontario app for businesses.
At that time, the authorities said, “We want to get the program DI right and make certain that security and privacy are a foremost priority. We will share more details, including timing and specifics on the initiative’s launch in 2022.”
The program aims to replace physical documents like driver’s licenses and health cards and instead allow people to store their digital identities in a digital wallet app on their smartphones.
The Government of Ontario also said that the program would ensure more privacy for people. For instance, if someone needs to confirm whether you are the age of majority, the verifier will only know that someone is over 18 and not their birthday or actual age.
Furthermore, people will have complete control over the information they wish to share, and no one can access others’ data without consent.
A digital ID is only stored on one person’s phone or computer, and it can be shut off remotely if the phone is stolen or lost.
As per the authorities, they will have no way of knowing where someone has visited or where they have used their digital identities. Before sharing any info through the app, users must always consent.
COVID-19 has been another reason for the app’s introduction since many prefer contactless interactions when purchasing online.
“The COVID-19 outbreak has also shown us that contactless in-person service options (such as tap-to-pay rather than inputting a PIN on a terminal) might help us stay secure.” According to the province’s website, “Ontario’s Digital ID will allow you to authenticate who you are in person without swapping any physical documentation.”
Purchases requiring proof of age, such as buying a lottery ticket, picking up a package, asking for disability support, opening a bank account, and more, will be possible with the digital ID program.
Businesses can utilize the program to hire new staff, open business accounts, and verify the identity of their clients.
Signing up for the program will be optional, and users would still be able to use physical ID anytime they wish (3).
China’s Digital Identities Plan
Last week, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, said during a news conference that the government will launch a digital version of its id card that citizens will be able to store and access on their smartphones across the country “this year.”
The announcement was made at the National People’s Congress in Beijing, following regional digital ID pilots that began in 2018 and allowed residents of cities like Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Zhengzhou, and Fuzhou to verify their identity with digital identities for hotel booking, ticketing, banking, and other purposes (4, 5).
One of the goals of the national rollout, according to Keqiang, is to “meet fundamental living necessities” in people’s daily lives, particularly those who live outside their home province.
“Around 100 million Chinese people now move across provinces. Some are older folks who have moved away from their hometowns to live in cities with their offspring. Some of them are for work or education, and they have a lot of trouble getting things done because of the travel,” Keqiang explained (6).
“As a result, inter-provincial access to government services has become a new ongoing demand.”
“One new policy we will implement this year is to make digital identities that are most frequently used in people’s everyday lives electronic, allowing them to accomplish specific tasks with the help of a simple code-scanning on smartphones.”
“We’ll also make it easier for individuals who don’t have smartphones, such as the elderly.” Meanwhile, we’ll make sure that information is secure and that people’s privacy is protected.”
As per a South China Morning Post report (7), virtual ID cards are accepted in “more than 15 big cities in China,” but not in many suburban areas.
Tencent and Alibaba have collaborated with the Chinese government to boost the utility of digital identities, which will now be used across the country.
China Will Also Launch Biometric ID System
The ruling Chinese Communist Party, CPP, has implemented a biometric-based online ID system to track residents’ online activity more than the existing system.
According to insiders, the Ministry of Public Security will test an online Identity card in Fujian and Guangdong before implementing it across the country (8).
Chinese internet users have long been compelled to register for online accounts using their real identities, which a smart national ID card must back up.
According to recent state media sources, applicants for the new internet card will be needed to provide biodata to police, including facial scans and a fingerprint, before they can access some online services.
Tseng Yi-Shuo, Cybersecurity Chief at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, says that the major concern with the concept is the intent to collect personal data on people in a single area.
Concerns have been raised that the new ID card may soon be required for access to online resources and that it will provide CCP authorities access to people’s surfing history for evaluation.
Former Tsinghua University politics lecturer Wu Qiang noted the unprecedented utilization of citizens’ data in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic has parallels.
He stated that he fully expects China’s internet controls and limitations to continue to grow until they are accepted as the norm across the country.
In its annual report in February, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network asserted that the CCP is expanding its use of artificial intelligence, such as facial recognition, DNA collection technologies, and big data algorithms, to screen and target naysayers and inhibit ethnic minority groups.
According to the report, anyone sent to a police station is now subjected to rigorous biometric data collection, including fingerprinting, DNA and blood samples, and biometric photos, while compelled biometric data collection was common at police checkpoints in Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, according to the group, authorities went door to door or interrogated people who used virtual private networks (VPNs) to access overseas social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, forcing them to delete their posts or accounts.
The group urged Beijing to halt surveillance and abolish the digital surveillance police state, including the Great Firewall, a complex system of barriers, screens, and human censorship.
Cybersecurity Measures for Digital Identities
We will need enhanced cybersecurity measures for a seamless global expansion of digital identities, so a lost or stolen smartphone does not mean a lost identity.
Apple recently filed a patent application for a digital ID system that allows users to securely share credentials with a second device. Users may find it easier to have a standalone digital ID device independent from their smartphones with this system (9).
Given that this is a patent application, the timeline for introducing such a product to market is still unknown.
Examples of user interfaces providing credentials for user devices are shown in Apple’s patent Figures 3 and 6.
Below are some other related patent applications recently submitted by Apple:
- Creation of Restricted Mobile Accounts
- Secure Sharing of Credential Information
- Configuration an Account for a Second User Identity
Social Credit and Other Concerns
National digital identities could find things simpler for authorities to duplicate China’s social credit system, which ranks and punishes citizens for undesirable behavior (10).
A government document says that the “social credit system,” first introduced in 2014, seeks to reinforce the idea that “preserving trust is glorious and violating trust is disgusting.”
The program is said to be completely operational by 2020, and it is obligatory.
However, reports suggest that the system is fragmented: some are managed by city governments, while others are assessed by private technology companies that store personal information.
Like personal credit scores, an individual’s social credit can go up and down depending on their behavior. While we don’t know China’s exact methodology, examples include infractions like bad driving, purchasing too many video games, posting fake news, and smoking in non-smoking zones.
In turn, China (or any government) can punish its citizens by;
- Restricting their travel, like banning you from getting the train or plane (11)
- Throttling your internet speeds for offenses like spending too much time playing video games, posting fake news on social media platforms, wasting money on frivolous purchases, not paying your bill on time, and more (12, 13)
- Banning you or your children from better schools and higher education (14, 15)
- Banning you from doing higher position jobs in big organizations, banks, and state-owned firms (16)
- Naming and Shaming as a bad citizen (17)
Governments may be able to lock you from your car using automotive software linked to your digital ID (18).
Simultaneously, people with good credit scores also get additional benefits. For instance, a woman in Beijing could book a hotel without any cash deposit because of her good credit score (18).
Other benefits can include:
- Discounts on energy bills
- Renting things without deposits
- Better interest rates at banks
- More matches on dating websites (19)
Also, it is worth noting that despite the system’s scariness, Human Rights Watch termed it “scary,” and Botsman described it as “a futuristic image of Big Brother out of control,” many citizens claim it is already making them better people.
Nonetheless, our identities could soon be canceled at a moment’s notice if we have universal digital identities with no physical substitute.