Ontario is the latest province to signal its intent to allow citizens to prove their identity with the help of a digital wallet, but experts say a lot of work remains before the service can be widely used.

“Digital identity needs to be as easy as Uber. It has to have that ubiquitous function that everybody knows this is what it is, this is what it does, this is when I trust it, and this is how I can use it, so those common standards and developing a way that we can share ideas and reuse them across the government and private sector is so important,” said Rob Devries, assistant deputy minister, Ontario Digital Service, at the IdentityNorth 2020 Fall Symposium which was held late last month.

Once the provincial government verifies Ontarians’ individual identities, digital identity documents will then be saved in a digital wallet on a mobile device that people and businesses can use to verify their identity anywhere. Strong encryption and privacy-protecting technology secure personal information such as name, birth date, or address, the government of Ontario noted in a press release. This should improve programs and support frontline government services, the government explained.

For example, a small business owner can cut through red tape by registering for licenses and permits and open accounts online. A farmer could register a farm vehicle online without needing to spend a day in the car travelling to government offices. A senior could securely share health information with caregivers.

“We’re not only launching this digital identity initiative, we’re modernizing our access management technologies. As I always say, our access management technologies really didn’t do the job on the I part. We all call it IAM, but sometimes the I [identity] is the painful part, and it’s the one that creates the most friction. And so now we have the opportunity to work with our public security team on the government side of things and partner with them on how we can use digital identities to enable better access to government services and bring those two things together,” explained Devries.

The digital wallet approach is nothing new. We’ve seen movement in that space in Canada as well as around the world. And as with any initiative, the priorities of ensuring the right controls for security and privacy protections must be in place, says Joni Brennan, president of the Digital ID & Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC), while speaking with IT World Canada. 

The recently published Pan-Canadian Trust Framework (PCTF) sets out guidance and practices for different technologies and policies tied to digital identities and verification, Brennan pointed out. 

DIACC launched PCTF, a set of digital ID and authentication industry standards that will define how digital ID will roll out across Canada. Its launch marks the shift from the framework’s development into official operation and will begin alpha testing by public and private sector members in Canada. The alpha testing will inform the launch of DIACC’s PCTF Voila Verified Trustmark Assurance Program (Voila Verified), set to launch next year.

As the various digital ID solutions are developed and launched across the province, the government will undertake provincial Privacy Impact Assessments and Threat Risk Assessments to assess all privacy and security considerations, elaborated Skamski. The government will also engage with external privacy and security experts to advise on best practices and help inform its approach, Sebastian Skamski, press secretary at the Office of the President of the Treasury Board, told IT World Canada in an email. 

Ontario following in others’ footsteps

British Columbia has been growing strong with its digital ID initiatives, said CJ Ritchie, the chief information officer at the government of B.C. To date, 215,000 mobile B.C. Services Cards have been activated. This number has been growing steadily, and over the last six months, the average has been over 35,000 mobile activations a month.

The province started to issue the B.C. Services Card in 2013, and as of October 2020, over 4.75 million people have a card in their wallet. The first digital service that relied on the B.C. services card was launched in April of 2018. Since then, there have been significant increases, most particularly as a government response to COVID, Ritchie pointed out. 

B.C. offers digital identities to their citizens as a way to access government services. Both B.C. and Alberta have integrated their digital identities with the federal government to enable residents to access federal services with their provincially issued digital IDs as an alternative to linking online banking information. Today, there are 20 digital services available, including the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training (AEST) – StudentAid BC Portal; Federal Government, Canada Revenue Agency, My Service Account Canada; Ministry of Health, Health Gateway; Justice, Criminal Records Review; Ministry of Health PRIME; and the Ministry of Citizens’ Services, BC Registries and Online Services. 

The government of Ontario also noted that starting in January it will begin consulting with the industry on how the province could introduce a secure digital identity for Ontarians by the end of 2021.

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