NZ enters the national digital ID movement

Published on the 06/12/2018 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

Digital identity

As NZ moves to roll out a national digital ID solution, what’s to be gained? And what are the risks?

Globally, it’s a movement in progress: So far some 60 countries around the world already have some form of digital ID program in place or underway. Most recently Singapore launched its thumbprint/facial recognition digital ID app and so far, so good: logging into government e-services are now as simple scanning your fingerprint on your mobile.

The city-state is planning on extending the tech to banks and healthcare facilities by offering software development kits and plug-ins to industries including banking and insurance so companies can connect their services to the centralised biometric digital ID system.

Paperless and presence-less digital signings of contracts, digital payments and identification via kiosks, patient identification and hospital registration, paying for and claiming insurance – Singapore has big plans for its national digital identification scheme.

Our own digital identity scheme, RealMe, which launched in 2013, was designed to let users access both private and government online services – and lets businesses conduct identity-checking. However, the need to physically authenticate has limited uptake of the scheme – at around 530,000 validated accounts, it is well short of the projected 1.4 million, and usage is restricted to a handful of government services, most of which offer an alternative username/password system.

With cybersecurity high on board agendas, strong authentication tools have the private sector is leaning in too.

Recently ASB rolled out its ‘selfie-ID’ facial recognition program which lets new customers open an account without visiting a branch in person. Single Source, a blockchain startup, is partnering with Delta Insurance to provide a decentralised blockchain identity system, and now Spark has announced – along with Cisco and IBM – its union with the global Sovrin Network aiming to create a digital identity scheme.

There’s good reason for all the enthusiasm. The benefits of rolling out a national digital ID are myriad: Easier cross-border business, better digital health recordkeeping, streamlined travel processes, anti-money laundering initiatives, frictionless payment authorisations, etc etc.

“As we do more and more online, it is necessary to adapt how we enable people to claim who they are.”

In contrast, the third world demonstrates why the stakes are high. According to research from MIT, in developing countries one in three children under the age of five has no record – digital or otherwise – of their existence. ID technologies, such as the health-focused Shifo Solution which marries scannable paper-based medical record-keeping with digital records can have genuine impacts on mortality rates for infants.

On this side of the globe, Australia is on the front foot, pushing for an integrated digital ID solution which would connect information from federal and local governments. The Digital Transformation Strategy, published in February, sets the objective of giving citizens access to all government services digitally by 2025.

But it’s a big ask and the government has attempted several ID-focused programs before, most notoriously the abandoned Australia Card project in the eighties, a 2013 e-government strategy that aimed to get all of its major services and interactions online by 2017, and of course 2016’s eCensus debacle.

Globally too, results of national digital ID rollouts have varied. India’s sweeping biometric-ID program for instance is embroiled in data leak scandals, mismanagement and fraud.

So if New Zealand intends to roll out a digital ID project, it best do it right.

That’s top of the agenda for the new Digital Identity NZ group (part of the NZ Tech Alliance), a collection of business organisations and government, set up to promote the digital ID concept to the public and innovation-friendly policy to government.

The group aims to bring together ‘private and government organisations working to make digital identity easier and more secure for everyone in New Zealand’.

So the potential for a national digital ID is bigger than what’s come before.

“While we have had RealMe in New Zealand for many years it is time to relook at whether a single centralised ID is the best approach in a world where people want ease of use and mobility at the same time as privacy and security,” says Andrew Weaver, executive director of Digital Identity NZ.

“As we do more and more online, it is necessary to adapt how we enable people to claim who they are,” he says.

The New Zealand government has taken its first steps, this week announcing $5.15 million in funding for research into digital identity.

“With more and more aspects of our lives taking place online it’s critical the government takes a lead to ensure New Zealanders have control of how and who uses their identity information,” says Megan Woods, minister for government digital services.

“This area is complex and changing rapidly, so it is important we get our approach right. Most countries and jurisdictions around the world are investing in approaches to digital identity that reflect their social licence, and I believe New Zealand should do the same.

“This is an exciting and important conversation to have. Getting it right will help grow our economy, transform government services and ensure everyone has access to the tools and knowledge they need to take part in New Zealand’s future.”

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