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  • Thierry Spanjaard

UK ID project: Nessie is back!

We all know Anglo-Saxon countries are reluctant to national ID programs: ID cards are unheard of in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. However, every so often, like Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, governments in these countries come up with a new ID project, they debate for a while, set up specifications, even go through field tests… and, so far, none of these project has come to fruition. Will it be different this time?

The UK government recently announced proposals to create digital ‘ID cards’ for British citizens thanks to the development of a new Digital Identity Strategy under the auspices of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). This digital ID would be used just like ID cards are used in the rest of the world: as proof of identity, age, doctor’s registrations, property signings, as part of a KYC process. The goal is to facilitate onboarding procedures as well as KYC compliance for financial institutions.

The principle is that credentialing organizations will verify a set of personal information, and then issue digitally verifiable credentials to the ID holder which can be stored on their smartphone. These digital credentials will be accessible to other entities under the owner’s permission, allowing the person to be authenticated by various service providers. The projects aims at guaranteeing privacy, transparency and interoperability.

The need for a digital ID has become more crucial with the tracing needs coming from the COVID-19 health crisis. For instance, 2.6 million people made a claim for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme online with 1.4 million having no prior digital identity credentials and needing to pass through the UK tax authority’s (HMRC) identity verification service. The UK has been facing a 32% rise in identity fraud over the last five years

The project is more similar to eIDs as they are in use in Germany, Spain, Italy, … , than to traditional ID cards. The government already announced it would be completed in the form of a public-private partnership but has not yet revealed the names of the partners. However, according to SecureIDNews, Onfido, an ID verification startup, Evernym, a digital ID specialist and Deloitte successfully tested a digital ID pilot in the UK earlier in 2020.

ID projects in the UK never go smoothly: one may remember the 2006 Identity Card Act, that ended up when the government of the time repealed the project altogether due a strong opposition of the population against any form of ID. More recently, the issue concerning the color of the cover of new British passports after the Brexit has finally been solved after months of controversy: since March 2020, British passports have a blue cover, just like they had between 1920 and 1988.

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