Bring On Digital ID, Now!

The views expressed in the Opinion section of The Western Standard do not necessarily reflect those of the owners and management.

Philippe Desmarais for Western Standard

Most of the interactions we have today take place in a digital form. We email our co-workers, order groceries online, watch friends’ adventures on our phones and store family pictures in the cloud. But while Mark Zuckerberg fantasizes about the metaverse, people still have to produce — sometimes, physically print — dozens of documents in order to open a bank account, change their residence, or deal with the health-care system.

Big tech companies on the other hand, have been using user-friendly systems to log into their platforms. Not only do Google and Apple provide you with one place where you can find everything you need, but they also have you access them through their authentication system. This results in our identities being de facto controlled by a handful of private companies while the government still manages an antiquated system that’s losing importance in our increasingly digital world.

Do not mistake me: These have been decades of very exciting innovation and part of the reason for that is governments have stepped aside and allowed the tech industry to flourish. But the time has come for them to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs. And the management of how members of society recognize each other is something that should not be done by private actors.

While the public sector is usually not the most innovative, it remains the most trustworthy societal institution that we can rely on. As such, it should provide a trusted system of digital verification that can be used by its citizens.

Estonian issued Digital ID card

So far, the implementation of a digital ID system in Canada has been characterized by a lack of coordination at the federal level, significant delays and privacy concerns. Provinces such as British Columbia launched a digital ID program almost two decades ago, but Ontario’s plan was only announced in 2020 and still seems to be far from being implemented. Quebec’s digital ID program should launch in 2025. In other words, it doesn’t seem like Ottawa is in any rush to put pressure on provincial governments, or to create a standardized national system.

This is not good for Canadian citizens. Every day we leave online authentication in the hands of big tech companies is just another missed opportunity to protect the privacy and cybersecurity of Canadians. Because even assuming these companies act in good faith, we still have to trust them to protect the data from a growing number of hackers. That not being a viable option is not an opinion, it’s common sense.

A government-issued digital ID on the other hand, allows individuals to gain full control over their data because they would be the ones holding the keys to all of their personal information.

Technological solutions such as zero-knowledge could allow citizens to access age-restricted services without revealing their date of birth or prove that their salary sits within a certain range without revealing the exact figure. Multi-signature schemes could require one or more individuals in order to access encrypted data such as social security numbers, healthcare records, or trade secrets.

With solutions like these being used for digital IDs, businesses would not only be able to cut costs associated with privacy protection and cybersecurity, but they would also access new opportunities to innovate and improve their user experience. And just like fossil fuel producers will have to move to alternative sources of energy as we run out of oil, data-driven business models will become outdated when the amount of data available online is gone.

It’s never ideal for governments to act in a rush and digital IDs systems require thoughtful discussions before being implemented. But this does not justify unreasonable delays that only benefit the above-mentioned companies. If the government has the privacy and security of its citizens at heart, digital ID should be one of its top priorities. The clock is ticking, and the data vampires will not stop gorging on Canadian data unless someone acts.

Philippe Desmarais is the founder and CEO of Kelvin Zero, an enterprise that helps banks and governments secure and validate critical data.