Fellow sceptics, do you recognise this list? Central bank digital currencies, climate alarmism, digital IDs, wokeism. That’s right, the list of long-running complaints from us, the sceptical community. But what is digital ID doing on that list? I want to make the case for modern digital ID. In fact, I want to make the case that we should not merely tolerate it but that it should be taken off our list of complaints and added to our list of demands. You know, the one that goes: limited government, lower taxes, rational argument, self-sovereignty. We have all got a list something like that, and I want to see modern digital ID on it.
I appreciate this is a tough sell. Back in February the Daily Sceptic was running stories such as: ‘Frightening Polls Shows Half of Britons Support Tony Blair’s Proposal for National Digital ID Cards‘ and ‘Government consults on digital ID‘ with excoriating comments below the line. Ross Clark in the Spectator reacted similarly with ‘Will Tony Blair ever give up on ID cards?‘ The Daily Sceptic stories made it onto episode 26 of the Weekly Sceptic. Nick Dixon’s summary was: “Leave us alone Tony!” and Will Jones’s was:
We thought this had died, killed 30 years ago, but here it is hot off the heels of vaccine passports and the growth of digital surveillance… The issue isn’t carrying the card, its surveillance and invasion of privacy that it entails and of course none of these things have been addressed… [A YouGov poll found] a chilling 54% supportive, only 27% oppose with 18% don’t knows. It is disturbing that so many of our fellow citizens don’t understand the dangers of putting all of your ID onto a computer database.
More recently, the Daily Sceptic News Round-Up of July 18th included an article ‘CEO of Worldcoin says “Something like World ID will eventually exist… whether you like it or not”‘. As Nick might say: “But it’s not all good news…”
Nick, Will and Ross are in the same camp as commentators such as Peter Hitchens, who does a demolition job on identity cards in his excellent book The Abolition of Liberty. Yet here I am arguing against these gods of scepticism. Am I mad?
Let me start by saying that national identity cards are a terrible idea. If you harbour any sympathy for them, I suggest you read chapter one of the aforementioned Hitchens volume, where the demolition really is comprehensive. Here in the U.K., we have tried them twice, occasioned by World Wars One and Two. They were useless, hated, expensive failures. Of course, that did not deter Governments clinging on to them, despite promising not to, with Lord Justice Goddard having to put an end to them in 1952. They are a simple idea never far from the minds of politicians, a panacea for fighting crime, illegal immigration and benefit fraud. Never mind that they did not, and will not, have much effect on any of those problems.
After 1952 the failed attempts at identity cards continued in the U.K. and abroad, but while all this was going on something rather important happened: the internet. It is not that the rise of the internet suddenly negates Hitchens’s or Goddard’s arguments, but it does highlight and magnify the problem of identifying ourselves to each other. For example, how does the bank know that the person asking to withdraw all the funds from an account really is the account’s rightful owner? This was a problem before the internet but now all of us do something similar dozens of times every day, that is, we have to identify and authenticate ourselves. Even commenting on this site requires you to identify yourself as a donating subscriber.
Here are some related problems: how do I prove that I have a degree in computer science from a particular university which qualifies me to do a job? Can the person checking that degree certificate do so without having to know how to contact the university? Or how do I check that the doctor treating me really is qualified and has not been struck off? Or that person selling me an investment scheme really is money-saving expert Martin Lewis? It is an age-old problem, proving things about ourselves to each other; being certain that others are who and what they claim to be: qualified, a licence-holder, of a certain age, and so on. And, yes, vaccinated or not. This last point highlights that done badly it can become the ideal tool of control by authoritarian regimes. That is why I spent a lot of time and effort petitioning the Government against vaccine passports and getting it raised in public forums such as TalkRadio.
But are vaccine passports not the perfect example of why digital ID is such a bogeyman for sceptics? Prior to the suggestion of vaccine passports, we were all carrying wallets full of IDs, from your bank, credit card company, loyalty schemes, organisation memberships, driving licence, student ID and so on. And there were records that we did not carry such as our medical records, which we trusted to the state healthcare system. As well as these organisations’ ID cards, our phones are full of their apps which hold so much of our data. We accepted all that and the Daily Sceptic was not running articles warning us against it. So, what was different about vaccine passports? The difference was that none of those organisations make the law. They are not the Government. If your insurance company goes nuts and tries to coerce you into weird behaviour, you take your business elsewhere. You cannot do that when it is the Government. When the Government starts coercing people into having medical procedures they do not want or need, they cannot opt out. The Government can pass emergency legislation, change the rules for international travel, issue ‘guidance’ to entire sectors of the economy and badger the police to enforce it. Its app is part of the larger scheme, but it could just as well be a paper card as it was in the past. The point is not to give the Government that monopoly over your personal data. And as we have seen recently with banks or the censorious payment processors or social media platforms, we should not trust them either. In fact, trust nobody but yourself.
Freeing ourselves from all these dependencies, not relying on Google, or a bank or the Government for our identity needs and protecting ourselves from surveillance, is what modern digital ID is all about. Giving up on technology and falling back to waving a paper bank statement or utility bill as Hitchens suggests may have been conceivable once but nowadays it is simply luddite. We complain about the eco-crazies attacking the foundations of the industrial economy (fossil fuels) because they wrongly believe it is harming the environment, but in the next breath we oppose modern digital ID, thereby undermining the foundations of our information economy and all its benefits, because of the damage we wrongly perceive it is doing to our privacy. As with the climate alarmism narrative, we in the West could imagine limping along with windfarms, electric vehicles and brown-outs, but for those in developing nations, being excluded from cheap, plentiful, reliable energy is a much more serious problem. The same goes for identity. We limp along with email as our primary identifier, suffer identity fraud on a mass scale, have everyone complaining about passwords and are alarmed when we hear of people not being able to get a bank account (which is impossible without ID) and as sceptics we weirdly defend this status quo. But for those in developing nations the situation is far more serious. Globally, 12% of people do not have any form of ID. Thirty-eight percent of people live in countries that use badly designed ID systems to subvert their rights. Owning property, getting a bank account, crossing borders or receiving state benefits is a huge problem if you do not have reliable, secure ID. The problem needs to be solved for those folks even if we convince ourselves we can muddle along with our broken systems.
Let’s face it, modern civil societies need sophisticated, privacy-protecting systems of identification. The question is how to do it without creating a doomsday machine for dictators. Fortunately, people who think a lot about this are at long last coming up with solutions. They are not shadowy Government agencies but technology enthusiasts from workaday sectors such as travel, hospitality and charities. People like the Digital Identity Foundation, the OpenID Foundation, the Better Identity Coalition and the Secure Identity Alliance. They work in the open to produce open-source designs and specifications that we can all read and even contribute to. Talk of Government surveillance and control in modern digital ID is either strawmanning or profound ignorance. People working in this area are well aware of the abuses enabled by badly designed identity systems. For example, this from OpenID:
History offers plenty of examples of intentional human rights violations enabled by Identity Systems. This includes the misuse of identity data to spy on citizens, disenfranchise them, displace them, de-nationalise them or commit genocide. Examples from modern history include the use of identity cards to displace and de-nationalise the Rohingya population of Myanmar, the targeted constraints on access to identification that has disenfranchised black and indigenous voters in the United States, the stripping of citizenship for over a million individuals in the province of Assam, India, and the effects of profligate data collection by Germany’s Third Reich and Communist Stasi regimes.
These groups designing modern ID systems know all this and work to correct it. They are influenced by years of experience gained from identity schemes from around the world, from Singapore, Estonia, Spain, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Italy, the U.K., the U.S. and Canada. Some schemes were Government led, others private and commercial, schemes which resulted in both benefits and harms. Serious people thinking very hard about these problems have gradually solved them. And they have been very difficult problems to solve. Giving anyone in the world with only a smart phone and an internet connection the ability to absolutely prove their identity, without having to trust any company, government or third party, forever, with complete privacy and security, is not easy. By the way, if this sounds like cryptocurrencies, you are right. Indeed, the underlying blockchain in Bitcoin can be used in these ID schemes. In the same way that crypto currencies are independent of any bank or Government, so are modern identity schemes because they are based on much the same technology. If you are a crypto fan, why are you not a digital ID fan?
The good news is that privacy-preserving, self-sovereign identity is now within reach. The bad news is that it is still called digital ID, and hence drags along with it all the negative connotations that history keeps reminding us of. Let us not let the name get in the way. We have a solution, let’s use it. Use it to free ourselves from banks, from governments, from technology giants. Use it to get rid of passwords, identity fraud and internet data brokers. I quoted Will Jones at the start of the article saying our fellow citizens do not understand the dangers of putting all of your ID onto a computer database. Actually, we do, so that is why we are not doing it. And the alternative is to start using modern digital ID.
Unfortunately, ignorance of these systems is endemic. To be fair, they are a relatively recent development, technically difficult to understand and many of the problems they address are subtle. Plus the lingering naming problem. Perhaps this is why so much of the debate I see is fighting yesterday’s war. My appeal to sceptics is to try it out (it’s free!) and learn about it before criticising it. Yes, there is a lot of jargon: distributed IDs, issuers, verifiers, relying parties, block chains, resolvers and so on. But shouting down anyone who tries to tell you about it, even if they are Tony Blair, is not scepticism, it is cynicism. My appeal is to keep an open, informed mind on digital ID. You may need it sooner than you think.