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The race to roll out e-residency in a British e-topia

bridge to the future

The digitilisation of identity and the ability of technology to allow seamless social and economic interactions could be a boon for a post-Brexit UK. But Britain is starting a long way behind the Estonian pace-setters…

Imagine getting off an international flight and going through immigration simply by walking down a corridor. No queues, questions, passports, visas or documentation necessary. This was the world envisaged at a recent press briefing hosted by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) to mark the publication of a report on the future of identity in the UK entitled A Verifiable Success.

Maisie Burrows, of the think tank Reform, described the dynamic threshold presented by smart identity use: “Australia are piloting a scheme where walking off a plane is like walking off a train. You walk through a corridor where facial recognition scanners scan your face and are able to say straight away that who you are, is who you say you are. I think they’re letting about 90% of passengers through without having to stop them.”

In sharp contrast to this efficiency, George Freeman, M.P. for mid-Norfolk and the former minister for Life Sciences, detailed his experience with data use at the pinch-point of an NHS hospital. In order to bring all the paper patient files to where they needed to be, the trust employed 60 patient file collectors. Freeman mentioned a recent meeting with one collector:

“He said: ‘when a patient comes into hospital and goes to A&E, and then goes to a ward and then to another ward they need their file – so I follow them.’

“I said: ‘Doesn’t the data have to get there before the patient?’

“He said: ‘No, we can’t do that no.’”

Once used, the files are then driven by van to a secret location on an industrial estate which Freeman visited. “I said ‘thank you, because you are the last line of defence for patient safety – [but] I’m here because I want to put you all out of business. I want to stop you doing this.’ There were ten miles of shelving in that warehouse.”

The report’s author, economist Scott Corfe, has used his research to highlight examples worldwide of highly functioning e-identity programs that are hoping to make the lives of governments and citizens easier. He reference’s Estonia’s online ID system, in place now for 15 years, which provides citizens with 600 online services. In 2012 94% of all Estonian tax returns were done online, each taking five minutes on average, and in over a decade, “no security breaches have been reported with respect to the e-ID verification scheme”.

Other examples include Dubai’s passport on an app and Belgium’s Mon Dossier: a state provided e-identity that allows ease of transparency, giving Belgians access to how the government is using all their civil data.

These are schemes executed for relatively small populations but the world’s second most populous country, India, has rolled out an ‘Aadhaar number’: a 12-digit number that, combined with a finger print, has allowed 380 million people to open bank accounts within the last 18 months. Likewise, China has recently employed facial scanning to recognise criminals. Earlier this month The Guardian reported that 25 known criminals had been arrested at a Qingdao beer festival having been spotted by cameras that verified their wanted status in “under a second” and with “a 98.1% accuracy rate”.

This event has drawn parallels with the use of such technology by London’s Metropolitan Police at this year’s Notting Hill carnival. Such use of identity as been accused of crossing into unwarranted state surveillance. One expert at the launch of the SMF report cautioned on the downside of “perceived surveillance”, and highlighted the discrepancy between “what they could do for the individual and not what the individual may want”.

Given the speed at which the technology is being developed and the differing levels of understanding, acceptance and political appetite, there appears to be a premium on best practice. “To take a transport analogy, what we need now is a highway code,” said Paul Naldrett of OT Morpho, a biometrics firm and sponsor of A Verifiable Success.

A British e-kitemark?

For Britain this could be crucial. Freeman explains the British brand is trusted and if the UK can provide an international “kitemark” for standards of use and acceptance in e-identity, then its adoption worldwide could provide considerable economic benefit. The report mentions the use of English common law in 27% of the world’s jurisdictions and draws a parallel with a UK stamped e-identity. If a firm or individual is able to say they are regulated by, and compliant with, English law it can provide guarantees of service and help secure business. Likewise, if they provide a UK issued e-identity they can prove similar legitimacies. One way this could best rendered is via the issuance of e-residency.

“We do think there’s an export opportunity for the UK in offering e-residency, so people can get a UK e-ID which they can use for digital signatures in commerce, or to prove their identity online. People could pay a small sum of money for this service,” says Corfe. “However, I think the real challenge is assuring the public that e-residency does not mean people will come and live here or work here, because immigration is such a heated issue.” Indeed, Corfe points out one of the benefits of e-IDs is the ability to help clarify immigration data and “take the heat out of the immigration debate”.

Post Brexit, the UK could become a global leader in international identity verification services. “Brand Britain is strong and we have a good technology sector and also financial legal services. We have the right companies to make that thrust,” says Corfe.

If Britain is to take up this mantle and seek to shape the future of e-ID on its own model then the rewards, economically, politically, defensively and diplomatically could be great. But, as George Freeman’s encounter with an undigitalised NHS shows, there is a long way to go. Indeed, he goes on to criticise the government’s reluctance to get departments to share data and the inflexibility of the “siloed, 19th century” offices of state structure; while Corfe claims the Inland Revenue do not share tax payer data with the Home Office to help them process visa applications.

Tallin

Tallin may well be seeing the e-topian dawn first (Credit: peeterv)

That isn’t the best start to an e-residency race in which Estonia have already set the precedent. To date they have 22,315 e-residents, almost 4,000 of whom are business owners. “This programme is unique in its kind. Estonia is the only country offering this government-issued digital ID accessible to anyone from anywhere in the world,” Kaspar Korjus, managing director of the Baltic state’s e-residency scheme told Glint.

The application fee is €100 and Korjus is outspoken on how the programme is not only bringing investment and innovation to Estonia but corporate taxes too. Singapore, Dubai and Azerbaijan are looking at similar schemes he says, but “only Estonia has such a combination of a secure digital ID, a great business environment, a fully digital administration, business friendly regulations, membership of the EU and simple taxation”.

Could the UK compete with this model? A British e-topia won’t be built in a day says Korjus.

“E-Residency couldn’t work without Estonian e-services that have been implemented throughout the years, such as the e-governance platform, the X-Road, digital ID. All of those services were already available online for Estonian citizens and residents. We only opened our digital borders.”

 

Alex Matchett is the editor of Glint

 

(Top photo: London’s Millennium Bridge at night, credit: mbbirdy)