Canada is behind other advanced economies in adopting digital identification for accessing government services online, the federal government’s CIO has warned a conference of identity professionals.
“We are falling behind in competitiveness if we don’t advance this file,” Catherine Luelo told the IdentityNorth spring workshop on Tuesday.
“We had been in a position of being in front, and we are falling behind — in fact we’re very far behind.” What is needed are “purposeful actions funding, resourcing and, frankly focus” of all governments, she said.
She made the statement as the Liberal government prepares to announce a new federal budget on Thursday.
British Columbia is considered the leading jurisdiction on digital identity, followed by Alberta, Quebec and Ontario. However, last week Saskatchewan put its plans to develop digital identification on hold, saying wants to see the progress in other provinces.
See also: New Ontario digital ID system sounds privacy alarms
Luelo noted that the mandate letter given by the Prime Minister obliges her boss, Treasury Board President Mona Fortier, to work “towards a common and secure approach for a trusted digital identity platform to support seamless service delivery to Canadians across the country.” Fortier’s mandate also includes federal digital transformation and updating or replacing outdated IT systems.
Digital identity, she added, is a “top file” in the government. “I think we’ve got a coalition of the willing at the political level.”
Digital identity refers to secure ways residents can access federal, provincial or municipal data and services affecting them online without having to remember a password. Ideally, a single federal digital identity will let a resident access a wide variety of federal services.
Not all of the kinks have been worked out. In fact, an introduction to a 2021 digital identity video created by the Canada School of Public Service, an online education portal for the civil service, says digital identity “remains a distant promise.”
Governments and the private sector have been working for some time on the problems through the Digital ID and Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC), which has created a Pan Canadian Framework for digital ID projects.
One way is by allowing residents to store personal information on their smartphones for selective use. For example, when a person needs to prove they are over the legal age to buy liquor or enter a bar, instead of showing a driver’s licence that includes not only their birth date but also their home address, the smartphone app can be configured to show only a checkmark that confirms they are the right age.
B.C. is furthest along in digital ID. Its BC Services Card and mobile app allow residents to prove who they are when accessing online provincial services.
Leulo, who has been in her post for only nine months after being CIO at Air Canada, didn’t specify why Canada has fallen behind on digital identity. “We’re just starting to roll out ‘doing government in a digital age,” she said at one point. Among her priorities, she added, is dealing with older IT systems that have to be replaced.
However, at one point she also said that “there is a lot of misinformation out in the system around digital identity.”
“We need to educate Canadians a little bit better on what digital identity is and is not,” she said at one point, “how it works with security and privacy and how it can be a way to give Canadians control” over their data.
In a separate session, Senator Colin Deacon was more pointed. “I get letters saying digital ID is preventing the things that they want,” he said. “It is completely misunderstood, and it worries me because they would be protected in ways they say they want to be … It’s a very worrisome issue because things we need to advance us are being prevented.”
Conference co-chair Aran Hamilton complained in the same session about unnamed people “looking to create leadership opportunities for themselves in the country by sowing misinformation, disinformation, actively trying to hoodwink Canadians into thinking that digital ID, as an example, is not being created to give them more control and more access to the global digital economy, but being created as a conspiracy to undermine their rights.”
Leulo said the provincial and federal governments’ rapid move to digitize services because of COVID-19 show how fast bureaucracies can move when they need to. A prime example, she said, were the vaccine credential apps provinces created which can also be used as proof of vaccination demanded by Ottawa for airline and rail travel.
“COVID caused us to go fast on files that we never would have envisioned, and get something to market based on the Pan Canadian Trust Framework that can be used for a federal purpose but issued provincially,” she said. Not only did it show that Ottawa, the provinces and the territories could work together, she added, it also showed how they can think about digital ID.
On digital ID Ottawa will “have staff, have milestones, we are going to show progress,” she promised.
Part of the problem, she said, is confusion over who is doing what. “We need to say here’s what provinces need to do, what they are are good at; here’s what the federal government needs to do and is good at; what DIACC needs to do, the CIO Strategy Council needs to do, what Standards [Council of Canada] needs to do, here’s where the private sector has this figured out.” And, she added, governments have to listen to what Canadians want.
“But we don’t have to engineer everything before we get started,” she said.
“Government delivered well in a digital way has the great opportunity to create the environment for trust,” she said. “And trust is the foundation of democracy.”
The conference concludes Wednesday. One session will see five provinces and one territory giving updates on their digital identity progress.