Experts admit digital identity plans have stalled

Written by Peter Walker
29/11/19

Open Banking standards are more likely to morph into some form of digital identity protocol than any government-backed scheme, according to a panel of experts at TechUK’s Open Banking conference.

Alastair Campbell, global head of digital portfolio and digital identity at HSBC, admitted that the bank struggles internally to agree on sharing of digital IDs, so “while I suppose this could happen in the UK, I think it’s unlikely”.

The moderator pointed out that places like Estonia and Sweden have created country-wide digital ID schemes, which Campbell praised, but added: “In the UK its down to our attitude towards central government, our culture of dissent - which in many ways is a great advantage - the huge upside to a decentralised attribute linking model is that it can unlock unbelievable levels of innovation.”

He admitted that with HSBC’s global reach, it was difficult to open accounts in other markets for the same person. “We don’t know how to write down why we trust your personal data in the first place - those attributes taken upon initial sign-up - if that metadata can be stored and used, and then shared – but there’s no semantic agreement on this event history between banks.”

Chris Michael, head of technology for the Open Banking Implementation Entity, agreed that “we’re not going to be seeing a single ID scheme anytime soon in the UK”, but he added that Open Banking may be one opportunity to share digital IDs within the banking industry. “This is low hanging fruit, we could get it up and running fairly quickly, the tech is there now and many banks are already talking about it.”

Earlier this year, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published a call for evidence on the future of digital identities, with a prediction that a successful scheme could add three per cent to UK GDP by 2030.

However, it also raised questions about the future of GOV.UK Verify, the service developed by the Government Digital Service (GDS) for public sector online identity authentication. Take-up has been disappointing since it went live in 2016 and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority gave it a red rating in its recent annual report on major government projects.

Also in the summer, DCMS and the Cabinet Office launched a Digital Identity Unit, promising to work with industry - particularly with sectors which have frequent user identity interactions - to ensure interoperable ‘rules of the road’ for identity.

Nick Mothershaw, chair and executive director at the Open Identity Exchange, argued that currently consumers don’t really care. “You need compelling use cases, things which make access to services like verifying age and address much easier – an ecosystem needs to be created to ensure that trust.”

Michael said that a bank ID scheme will only come if the institutions agree on common standards on certain use cases – probably those with monetisation benefit like age and address – and that initially the agreement only needs to be “a thin layer” and light touch, in order to get something in place.

“BigTech could come in and do this at scale – that should be both a carrot and stick for banks,” he added.

Simon McDougall, executive director at the Information Commissioner’s Office, also spoke at the event, stating that he shared other speakers’ enthusiasm for Open Banking and data portability.

“We’re on the bus with you, but without consumer trust the wheels fall off and it becomes a clown car.”

He continued that Open Banking is both tremendously exciting and tremendously young, and it “needs to hang onto the original vision, and not fall into the negative and complex ways of doing business with data”.