The world’s population is expanding and many citizens — particularly those in developing nations — have no means of proving their identities, restricting their access to vital services like education and healthcare. This is a crisis so pronounced that the United Nations listed the issue on its Agenda for Sustainable Development: “By 2030, [we must] provide legal [identities] for all, including birth registration.”
Mobile-based digital identities could play an important role in solving this issue as smartphone ownership has become more widespread, paving a natural avenue for such tools. Mobile devices enable fast and secure access to services, many of which are solely available online. Private businesses and world governments are quickly growing aware of mobile digital identities’ benefits, and dozens of initiatives are taking place to implement them around the world.
Device Manufactures Explore Mobile ID
Digital wallets for holding plane tickets, credit cards or club memberships have been in use for several years now, but digital IDs still have a long way to go before they can entirely replace their physical counterparts. Smartphones are currently unable to store government-issued IDs like passports or drivers licenses due to the extensive cryptography necessary to prevent fraud. Technology giant Google is looking to change that with its recently announced initiative to bring digital IDs to its Android devices. The company also plans to make these IDs accessible even when a device’s battery is depleted, eliminating another concern that comes with digital ID programs.
Personal electronics manufacturer Samsung is also looking at mobile digital ID solutions with its Nexsign tool, which verifies users’ identities with biometrics, rather than easily breached or forgotten passwords and security questions. Samsung also recently made a significant investment in SentinelOne, a developer that specializes in endpoint detection and response (EDR) technology. The latter, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to detect malware and ransomware and protect users’ digital identities, raised $120 million in a Series D funding round from several venture capital investors, demonstrating the industry’s interest in such offerings.
Governmental Mobile ID Initiatives
The city-state of Singapore has long been at the forefront of digital identity, first introducing its SingPass national ID card in 2003. The government plans to adapt SingPass for smartphones this year by rolling out a new national digital identity (NDI). This new system will encrypt identity information on citizens’ smartphones, and it will utilize facial recognition, quick response (QR) codes and software tokens for authentication purposes. The NDI is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2020.
Singapore is also taking mobile ID steps with SG-Verify, a new government-developed tool that will enable citizens to use the NDI to access non-governmental functions, such as registering at hospitals or opening bank accounts. Enrolled citizens will be able to scan QR codes on their SingPass apps to upload necessary information to the business they are looking to access, preventing them from having to manually enter personal details. Singapore’s Government Technology Agency stated the feature will be live by the end of Q3.
Malaysia is also making strides on its national mobile ID initiative. The country’s communications and multimedia minister, Gobind Singh Deo, announced Malaysia’s Digital ID initiative — a voluntary program meant to supplement the country’s existing compulsory ID cards — last year. The government, which is currently taking bids from several technology companies that want to institute biometric identities for the country’s citizens, expects the program to be finalized by the end of 2019.
Mobile digital ID programs have faced their share of complications, however. Kenya’s digital ID program, Huduma Namba, has been unable to register all 50 million of its citizens, as many of them lack the paperwork necessary to sign up for the system.
One anecdote comes from 18-year-old Nyangi who, like many Kenyans, was born at home and did not receive a birth certificate. Officials turned her away when she attempted to apply for the Huduma Namba, which is necessary for smooth application for the Kipande national ID. Kipande grants citizens access to government aid programs, such as the Community Development Fund and Joint College Admission, and young Kenyans without it are frequent targets of police harassment.
The Huduma Namba rollout is a prime case study for other governments exploring mobile digital ID programs and the pitfalls that may result. Such programs may provide convenient and valuable public services, but if citizens face too much hardship when enrolling, they may decide it’s not worth the trouble.