The recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is proving patchy. It’s prone to conflict, fear and mistrust.
And if we don’t fix our flawed digital identity infrastructure, says Bianca Lopes, our guest on the latest New Money Review podcast, we can expect repeat after repeat of crises like Covid-19.
Digital ID is how we recognise people and things online. It’s how we know who we’re dealing with. ID systems also determine our money systems.
“The human brain is naturally wired to want to identify things”
To understand digital identity, we need to start by remembering that our biological make-up plays a big role in determining the way we assess and interact with the outside world.
“The human brain is naturally wired to want to identify things,” says Lopes, a mathematician and identity and data expert.
“It’s how we decide, ‘Hey, this is an enemy and I need to act’, or ‘This is an opportunity’,” says Lopes.
According to Lopes, we can draw an important lesson from coronavirus.
“We’ve realised that identity is so foundational to our society,” she says.
“The pandemic has allowed us to see that cracks in the identity infrastructure exist,” she goes on.
“It’s a systemic problem. If we don’t address it at the core, we will see the consequences coming out in times of crisis more than ever.”
But there’s a long way to go. No government has yet put in place a solid foundation for its identity system, says Lopes.
Often, she says, the issue is confusion between two fundamentally different things.
First, she says, there are the individual identities that are inseparable from us and which we should all own.
Second, there are the attributes associated with those identities, which we may adopt and discard over time.
“We’re still really stuck on authentication without solving the problem of identification”
“Your identity starts with something that is intrinsically yours and only yours, that is not given to you,” says Lopes, citing the human fingerprint as an example.
“But most of the things you hear people debating about digital identity are attributes—you might be a doctor, spouse or parent. Those things are not who you are, they are attributes given to you or that you attribute to yourself.”
This lack of care on definitions has led to a lot of wasted effort and money, says Lopes, citing the UK government’s past failures to implement an effective digital ID infrastructure as an example.
“We’re still really stuck on authentication without solving the problem of identification,” she says.
“If you haven’t solved the infrastructural issue of identity, you’re going to be talking about identity as attributes—for example, as an e-mail address, bank account or phone number.”
As coronavirus pushes some governments towards more intrusive control and even coercion of their populations, getting the checks and balances right in the design of identity systems is more vital than ever, Lopes warns.
“It’s up to us as a society to question who’s controlling [these systems],” she says.
“How are the algorithms built? It’s not data or technology that is the enemy. But it could be if we’re not asking the tough questions about ethics, procedures and how public some of this information is.”
“And it’s not enough to be public, it has to be accessible—not in a 130-page document with some legal wording.”
“We have to collaborate better”
Worse, many states have been trying to weaponise data and ID systems, says Lopes.
“A lot of governments have been looking at data as a war game,” she says, citing states’ increasing demands that data be stored only within their physical boundaries as an example of increasing geopolitical tensions.
In the meantime, everyone wanting to improve digital identity systems should work on raising awareness of the problems bad design choices can lead to, says Lopes.
“We have to build a common language and empower people to understand the importance of this for themselves, for their kids, their businesses, their democracies and their countries,” she says in the podcast.
“We have to collaborate better.”
To listen to our interview with Bianca Lopes, click here
Sign up here for the monthly New Money Review newsletter
Click here for a full list of episodes of the New Money Review podcast: the future of money in 30 minutes