By Rob Laurence

Hindsight is, of course, the perfect 2020 vision. From the future we can look back and see what we could not see when we were in the past (I credit that statement to Pamela B. Zohar).

If only we could have perfect 2020 foresight? Nowhere is this more pertinent to us identity folk, today, than when it comes to contemplating the future of digital identity in the UK. We can only look to the background and foreground signals to help us form a vision for digital identity in 2020 and the years to follow.

In Europe and beyond, digital identity schemes of note have either been led by governments as an evolution of national identity schemes or through a collaboration of organisations, usually banks. There is little else.

Here in the UK, there is neither an appetite for a national digital identity scheme nor as yet for a bank-led collaboration. What we have is GOV.UK Verify and a number of fledgling schemes and services emerging, led by the governments in Scotland and States of Jersey, the NHS in England and Wales, and entrepreneurial organisations such as Yoti.

For businesses, the usability of such schemes becomes very narrow and, therefore, the business case questionable.

For service providers, the commercial viability of such fragmented schemes is highly debatable.

And for citizens and consumers, signing up to a number of schemes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. A balance has to be struck between the effort and inconvenience of joining with the ease and convenience of using; being able to access multiple services across multiple organisations – the utopia of ubiquitous use.

Far better, I would suggest, would be for a model to emerge that allows schemes to develop, to interoperate seamlessly and to deliver economies of scale.

So, we are seeing here some background signals that help us shape a vision for digital identity in 2020 and beyond, in the UK.

2020 is an important year for the 5thMoney Laundering Directive and its transposition into UK Regulations. The Directive explicitly recognises the use of eIDAS notified trust services and schemes, and other such nationally recognised digital identity schemes, within the customer due diligence identity checking process. The UK Treasury is currently leading the transposition and its consultation process has called out for comment on the use of digital identity.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is developing guidance on the use of digital identity for the purposes of conducting customer due diligence and seeking input from the private sector through this year.

So, some clear foreground signals are emerging from the international money laundering regime and its direction of travel, to help shape the vision for digital identity in 2020 and beyond in the UK.

Given where the market is in the UK at present, and given the background and foreground signals, foresight may suggest a model needs to be developed to allow schemes to interoperate and to ensure an orderly, transparent market emerges. This in turn, could help stimulate investment and grow the value of digital identity to all parties in the digital identity ecosystem. In the absence of such a model, the ability to scale and deliver cost-effective schemes becomes uncertain and, for the citizen and consumer, delivers marginal benefit over the status quo today.

An interoperable model may seemingly come about in one of three ways.

  1. Government policy backed by action
  2. An industry or cross-industry approach
  3. Through the collaboration and collective efforts of all parties in a digital identity ecosystem.

The announcement earlier this month by Oliver Dowden, the Minister for Implementation at the Cabinet Office[1], reiterating the government’s commitment to enabling the creation of a ubiquitous digital identity market, rather points towards the third way as the most realistic approach to developing the model.

In summary, the Cabinet Office and DCMS will form a new Digital Identity Unit to deliver on the outcome of a consultation with industry to bring about the effective organisation of a digital identity market through interoperable standards, specification and schemes, and to pave the way for government to consume digital identities from the private sector.

Some very explicit signals that help shape the vision of digital identity in 2020 and beyond.

However, these signals and good intentions only take the vision so far – to create an environment and framework for a digital identity market.

Ultimately, it will be the innovators, entrepreneurs and investors, together with market forces that determine whether this vision will be successful and to populate the ecosystem in a collaborative, yet competitive way.

And if such good intentions are not realised, and a collaborative market does not emerge, could it be the big payment schemes, MasterCard, PayPal, Visa or Facebook Libra to be, that dominate in future, as payments and identities converge in the digital world?

Or will hindsight show another outcome, perhaps which we don’t yet have the foresight to recognise.

The inescapable feeling, I suggest, is that 2020 will be the now or never year for government and industry to collaborate and create an interoperable digital identity market. Miss the opportunity and it may have gone for good.

If only we had the foresight of 2020 hindsight ……