What is the future of government-issued ID?

Before the Internet age, the most common proof-of-identity requirement was to show a government document. To prove identity, you produced a passport, driver license, birth certificate, social security cards, or other government-issued ID and showed it to another live human being. This system fell apart when the live human being was taken out of the equation in the world of online verification. Verifying online identities, or what is known in some countries as “person-not-present” verification, is much harder. Countries are working through this issue, and while some countries like the UK, Australia, and the U.S. legislate electronic identity verification using multiple sources to verify identity, other countries are trying different solutions.

For example, European countries view government-issued electronic ID (eID) cards as the answer. Finland was the first to provide these in 1999, followed by Estonia in 2002, Belgium in 2003, and now 16 European states offer their citizens eIDs. The European Commission is pressing for digital IDs issued in one state to be recognized by authorities in another, which would make such IDs even more useful.

The format of these electronic identifications varies from country to country. Biometric data may be included, but typically the identification combines something you own (like a smartphone with an ID app) with something you know. Once issued, the ID is considered a secure way to deal with state authorities for online business from e-voting to paying taxes.

Government IDs are often seen as a solution in poor countries, where people may have not have established identity at all. India has undertaken a massive identity project called the National Population Register. Currently in phase 2, they have registered 275 million of its 1.2 billion people with an ID system that includes iris scans and fingerprints. This huge project is struggling, however, and many still can’t prove their identity sufficiently to move around the country or conduct business. The issued card with the unique identity (UID) number that is compulsory for accessing government services is not considered proof of citizenship, which is limiting usefulness.

However, not everyone is jumping onto the government ID bandwagon. Private corporations are developing identity solutions that give individuals control of their online verification.  Many consider private options better alternatives to yet another mandated, government-managed system. Mobile network operators, banks, and even retailers can become “identity portals” web users can call for identity verification. Often these identity credentials can be used to access several sites, making the verification process easier for users and businesses.

The UK “Identity Assurance” service is an interesting hybrid program that combines both private resources and government connection. Identity providers are paid by the government to verify identity for access to government resources. Five identity providers (Digidentity, Experian, Mydex, the Post Office, and Verizon) are currently in the service with more expected. Consumers are in control, since they choose which ID provider to use, and they can stop using them at any time. The UK isn’t the only country working on hybrid solutions. Nigeria has partnered with MasterCard to move to a cashless society and facilitate identification. There are political risks of such a partnership, however, and some are concerned about a US company providing verification services for a country that could be subject to US sanctions.

Despite all of the different options being attempted and used globally, the new reality is clear: government-issued ID as we’ve known it is quickly becoming a thing of the past. In the days before the Internet revolution, you needed a government ID. In some countries, you will soon need another government ID to access online services. Based on the quickly evolving options provided through either private enterprise or collaborative solutions like the UK program, it’s becoming increasingly evident that governments will never again have the same level of authority in identity verification as they once did. Although the trials in India and Nigeria show that any country can expect challenges, the European Commission’s attempt to standardize eIDs could very well influence other nations to follow suit.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important do you think government-issued IDs will be in five years? (1 – not important, 10 – very important)