Governments must fight misinformation on digital ID, say provincial experts

It could have been a coincidence, but as the IdentityNorth spring workshop discussed progress on digital transformation in Canada’s public and private sectors, a news report said a provincial political party is calling on Ontario to stop work on its digital identity project.

A petition being circulated by the Ontario Party demanded the legislature show “zero tolerance for the implementation of any Digital ID program in Ontario, and that any government endeavour seeking to establish a system akin to the ‘social credit’ system of communist China be condemned, halted and banned.”

“Central banks in Canada and around the world are already developing digital currencies to replace paper and coin money, and these digital currencies will be integrated into any ‘Digital ID’ program,” the petition speculated.

“The dangers that this new program poses to upholding civil liberties and privacy rights, and the clear opportunities for abuse of governmental authority it presents in terms of surveillance and compelled behaviour, using access to basic resources as a tool of coercion, are ominous. They point toward progression to a dystopian communist Chinese-style ‘social credit’ system.”

Word of this petition was brought up Wednesday at an IdentityNorth session of senior provincial and territorial civil servants who oversee digital ID projects. Their response was immediate: It’s another example of why more education on what digital ID is – and isn’t — is needed.

“It seems the message gets a little bit twisted,” said Mark Burns, the Yukon Territory’s director of e-services for citizens and geomatics.

“People are starting to get engaged around the promise of digital identity and seeing the promise of it. When it becomes a real thing, more people want to talk about it. The thing is, not all of them have spent seven years working on the file and are educated on the nuances. So they start to fill in the blanks with their own explanation of how some of these things work. And that causes quite a few problems for us, because they get into the media and they spread ideas that make sense to them.

“I think there’s a role for vendors, certainly a role for privacy commissioners and the public sector, to share the messaging and share education around how it works, how it enables without over-reaching in terms of gathering and using personal and private information.”

Perhaps, he said, governments should issue individuals a regular ‘How we used your information’ statement, like a bank statement. It would show residents who in government made use of their personal information and for what purpose.

“Be open and clear so citizens can have confidence there is no secret data-linking, profile-building scheme going on in the background,” he said. People know the private sector does that and perhaps they assume government is doing the same, so, he said, transparency is vital.

“I spend 90 per cent of my time educating,” said Colleen Boldon, director of New Brunswick’s digital lab and digital ID programs. “Even for the technical resources [staff], they really don’t know what digital identity is in the way that we envision it.

“Citizens see all of their friends get hacked or phishing attempts. They’re starting to get educated but they don’t know why they should care. What we have to remember is people care about ‘doing stuff,’” she said.

So, for example, she suggested it might be persuasive to explain that digital identity can verify a person they’re communicating with online is who they say they are.

“Pushing more [government] digital services online lets people play around online, get used to using an online forum. And then you come in with, ‘Now we can make it more private, secure,’ and this is why you care.

“I think we can find a common message and start to move forward together with the right messaging.”

It might help, Boldon added, if digital ID carried a recognized brand like the Verisign checkmark that verifies the authenticity of websites.

Speakers didn’t say directly, but one problem is it’s still early days for government-issued digital ID that allows access to online services without users having to remember a password. Several provinces have learning or full projects – for example, B.C.’s Service Card – but not one that covers all provincial or territorial services.

Even Boldon, who praised digital ID initiatives in her province, admitted there is still a need for lots of pilots, lots of learning.

Marc Vezina, director of government enterprise architecture and chief enterprise architect in Quebec’s Ministry of Cybersecurity and Digital, also acknowledged seeing “a lot of misunderstanding” on the concept of digital ID. “We have to work more on that with a collaborative approach with the provinces and territories. We need a common message or line for our citizens.” Even within his government, more clarity is needed, he said.

Sophia Howse, B.C.’s senior executive director for digital identity and trust programs, said she still needs to educate senior provincial officials about the problems her staff are trying to solve. “As we start to work across jurisdictions and work with our [private sector] partners on this, there is a shared narrative we need to put together so we have common messages, so we can speak to it in a way that’s easy to understand.”

A separate conference session was a reminder that digital ID and digital transformation are international issues. Canada is one of nine countries in the Digital Nations forum (along with the U.K., Estonia, Israel. Portugal, Denmark, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea and Uruguay) exchanging lessons learned.

Offer Ishai, senior strategist in Israel’s e-gov unit, said in addition to learning lessons from Estonia, considered a leading nation on digital transformation, he also has learned from Canada’s digital ID efforts in creating a Pan Canadian Trust Framework for the secure exchange of documents online.

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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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