Canadian privacy expert says 2021 could be the year for digital ID projects

For a decade, federal, provincial, territorial, and private-sector governments have patiently put together a framework for a digital identity that can be used in all jurisdictions, and perhaps internationally.

One of the leaders now says that this could be the year that a project goes live.

“The dream would be, 2021 is the year where we make the pivot to implementation,” Peter Watkins, program executive for digital identity at the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service, said Wednesday during the IdentityNorth online Winter Workshop. The institute is a support agency for the Joint Councils of CIOs and government service delivery officials.

“We’re looking for a shortlist of what we think are the essential types of digital identification that people in the economy need,” Watkins said.

The idea is to “prime the pump” with projects that show Canadians what’s possible by having a digital ID and excite the private sector by setting “the stage for innovation.”

He did not specify which projects are under consideration, except to divide them into two broad categories: one provides what he calls a “verifiable person,” such as proof that a person is a company director or signatory, or proof that one has access to a health insurance account; another is what he calls a “verifiable person,” such as a digital health card, a driver’s license, or a company article.

Some provinces are further ahead than others. Alberta, Watkins noted, already has the My Alberta digital ID that allows access to some provincial and federal services.

“We’re not going to get a mountain of stuff done in a short time frame, but I believe we can do something useful,” he said. “We’ll dispose of proof of concepts and endless conversation and have real things that we can point at and show that they work.”

His prediction comes as the Digital ID & Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC), a public-private sector coalition working on the Pan-Canadian Trust Framework for interoperable digital ID, released its annual survey of Canadian attitudes towards digital ID.

Among the findings:

  • 88 per cent of respondents were very or rather in favour of the concept of the digital identity card.
  • Seventy-five per cent felt that the COVID pandemic made it more important to have a secure, trustworthy and privacy-enhancing digital card that helps Canadians make secure online transactions.
  • Eighty per cent of those surveyed thought it was very or somewhat important that Ottawa and the provinces act quickly to provide Canadians with a secure digital ID.

Also this week, the House of Commons finance committee released a pre-budget report with a long list of recommendations tied to digital IDs. One of them suggested that Ottawa “implement a digital identity system that empowers Canadians to control their data that is held by the federal government.”

Watkins spoke at a panel of digital ID experts from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and Yukon. Many of the panellists sit on one of the advisory joint councils of state CIOs or government IT service providers. They are known as Jurisdictional Experts for Digital Identity. They are also informally referred to as JEDIs.

All panellists agreed that the pandemic has accelerated the need for governments to deliver services faster online, but has also increased pressure to move faster on digital identification, because it is a key factor in ensuring secure access.


Digital ID needs to be as easy as Uber, says Ontario official


Many civil servants overseeing the scramble last year to build online services wished they had a foundation for digital ID to build on, Watkins said. “They knew the compromises they were making and they knew what they were building wasn’t as good as it could be if the infrastructure had been in place.”

In some provinces — B.C. and Alberta — digital ID has a high profile. Others, like Saskatchewan, for example, are latecomers. Cosanna Preston-Idedia, director of digital identity for the province, said that before COVID, the government felt that digital ID “could wait a bit to be funded.”

After people were forced to work at home and government services offices had to be closed, digital ID went from a “futuristic” thing to “we want it now,” she said.

Following consultations with the private sector in Saskatchewan last year on what digital ID might look like, a public consultation could be launched soon.

Robert Devries, assistant deputy minister of platforms with the Ontario government’s digital service, said civil servants and software developers in the province earned credibility by the speedy way they enabled digital transformation, particularly in working together with Ottawa and Shopify to create the COVID Alert mobile app. Work on a digital ID platform has also increased.

“We did a ton of good things in rapidly delivering services during the pandemic,” said Arlene Williams, executive director for digital platforms for Nova Scotia. However, without digital ID, there had to be some compromises. “Had we had digital ID, it would have been easier, as opposed to providing [user] validation as a ‘one-off.'”

Preston emphasized that technical solutions for digital ID problems can be solved fast. Getting support within the government takes longer. It takes a while to answer questions like: Does current legislation allow this type of innovation? Is the privacy commissioner on board? Does the health department and motor licence department support the idea?

Some believe digital documents such as proof of COVID vaccination will be needed for a range of activities from cross-border travel to entry to restaurants to help the economy recover. As part of this, digital ID will be vital.

But, cautioned Devries, digital ID will not only have to work with provincial services but the private sector’s as well. “It’s no good solving for vaccines today and something else tomorrow. Digital identity won’t be an auction of government assets for monetization. It’s going to be a partnership for a foundation for a digital economy that lifts all boats.”

The IdentityNorth Winter Workshop continues today.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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