The politics of digital identities

Nearly a decade ago, many of us atended our first conference session on identity and security, perhaps a PKI presentation, and promptly nodded off.

Save for the most technically literate, the details of hardware configurations, software innovations and mathematical algorithms weighed mightily on an all-too-limited attention span.

A few clever folks, the early adopters, from both industry and government ‘got it’ early on, however. They would go on to marshal sufficient resources for the secure channel, the backbone of the flagship GOL initiative.

Not to be outdone, the Canada Revenue Agency proved adept in facilitating online tax filing, as have the provinces and municipalities, many further along in electronic service delivery than the federal government.

Beyond selling new solutions to government, the private sector moved much more quickly, of course, creating new business models and entirely new markets. Banking is interoperable and information plentiful, as the Internet seems boundless in offering more choice for the consumer.

Most of us have but the vaguest of notions of how companies protect our data (and how it is being shared), or how search engines offer up the listings they do – but it works, and in a 24×7 world, that’s what matters.

In government, however, responsive service competes head-on against political demands for transparency and accountability that often proceed at a very different speed. That much of the public does not understand the details of authentication and identity management is more than a nuisance – it’s a heavy barrier to a more profound digital transformation of both public service delivery and democracy.

The emergence of identity is everywhere – border crossings, anti-terrorism, electronic health records, and the stubbornly difficult realization of integrated services both within and across levels of government.

All of these challenges require new and more interoperable mechanisms for sharing information and undertaking co-ordinated and often integrated action. They also run counter to existing political structures that determine the incentives and constraints for elected officials.

Yet, identity is rarely part of the political discourse. The Arar affair has exposed the extent of information sharing between Canada and the U.S., often without any meaningful political oversight. The political fallout has been predictably narrow – seeking to assign blame, while there has been next to no policy debate (in this country at least) about pending plans for biometric passports and new identification cards and how these plans will impact both domestic and continental governance. The public remains unaware.

In the realm of service delivery, Service Canada has established itself as the federal government’s new brand and point of access for Canadians. Here too, however, an absence of political leadership has hampered this entity’s efforts (entity is the safest descriptor in the absence of legislative clarity – itself a form of identity crisis).

Until Service Canada better establishes itself within the federal apparatus, it seems a safe bet that inter-jurisdictional collaboration will be a slow and painful process.

For Service Canada, the foundation for identity management is the social insurance number.

Provinces are less sure – wondering whether a federally administered registry is the best approach for provincial domains such as health care and vehicle registration. Municipalities, too, seek their own methodologies for local services: unfortunately their political and financial dependencies limit their voice in shaping interoperability and inter-governmentalism for the public sector as a whole.

Several years ago, the federal government promised to create a new Council on Identity to examine such issues. Due to aforementioned conditions, it has failed to materialize and, in its absence, the inter-jurisdictional councils of CIOs and senior service officials have been plotting to move forward. A new commitment to concerted action on identity management was forged at one such gathering earlier this year.

These bodies deserve credit for prodding forward. Yet, the absence of any meaningful and sustained form of political engagement at such forums continues to act as a vice on more ambitious action – largely for the reasoning invoked at the outset of this column. A technocratic approach cannot suffice in mobilizing public awareness and learning, prerequisites for new forms of integrated political action.

A new and truly political Council on Identity is urgently required in this country. A model of sorts may be the successful Crossing Boundaries concept that has at least brought together elected officials from various jurisdictions in a neutral setting in order to help frame many of these challenges.

The next step is a mechanism involving political buy-in and resource commitments by all three government levels. Its most essential task would be a broadened dialogue with all Canadians as to why incremental progress on identity management – and tinkering with the status quo, will no longer suffice in a more digital, interoperable world.

Jeffrey Roy is associate professor in the School of Public Administration, Faculty of Management, at Dalhousie University. He can be reached at

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