Electronic identity - the solution not the problem


by LogicaCMG

Electronic identity has an image problem. The public often react negatively to talk of high-tech national identity cards or biometric passports; and businesses groan about the expense of implementing yet another new technology. Prompted by security fears, governments are often seen as the main drivers--and the principal beneficiaries--of electronic identity solutions.

It may well be that governments are the keenest to get going with this technology,  in order, for example, to make sure international borders can be both secure and easy to cross; or to help tackle the elusive threat that is international terrorism. However amidst popular fears over civil liberties and concerns from business about costs, it is easy to forget that electronic identity will make life easier for the public, whilst ultimately helping businesses to save money.

How? Take the issue of proving that we are who we say we are, essential in parts of everyday life such as banking or insurance. Currently this manages simultaneously to be too easy and too difficult.

An example of why it is too easy, is the availablility of fake utility bills which can now, it is reported, be bought cheaply on the Internet, enabling the creation of false identity. As a result, identity theft has become a major feature of modern life, with consequences that are damaging for its victims and expensive for the businesses. Businesses will be able to decide the level of the identity check they require, and therefore their investment, based on the benefit to them. It is worth bearing in mind however, that identity theft cost businesses $50bn in the US alone.

At the same time, proving identity is more difficult than it should be, because we are constantly required to confirm who we are—by digging out a range of different documents—whenever you want, say, to open a new account or get a loan.

Electronic identity will help to solve this sort of problem because it offers a system that is very difficult to defraud but very easy to use. Using biometric information as part of an electronic identity system makes it extremely hard to obtain ID fraudulently. Iris, finger and face recognition technologies are now well advanced and such biometric information provides the best possible confirmation of identity.

Users of electronic identity need only confirm who they are when they apply for the ID. Once it has been granted, it provides a guarantee of their identity that does not need constantly to be confirmed. High tech ID cards (such as chip-and-pin systems that incorporate biometric data) can then be used in different ways according to the ‘value’ of the service being used.  For example, the photo on the card might be all that is needed to pick a parcel up from the post office; a PIN number might be needed for a financial transaction and a biometric reading (say an iris or fingerprint scan) used for a border crossing.

So electronic identity will help the public directly by making it easier to travel, reducing the burden of administration in day-to-life and offering protection from fraud. As for businesses, there will indeed be costs for certain firms in the short term. The full benefits of electronic identity will only be realised when there is an infrastructure in place for its use. This could mean, for example, card readers on the premises of some businesses that deal directly with the public. However the initial cost is likely to be more than offset by lower administration costs, a reduction in the impact of fraud and in the longer term, by the freeing up of cross-border trade and travel.

The key to getting electronic identity right is the ‘enrolment’ process, in which a person confirms their identity and a biometric reading is taken. If an electronic identity is procured illegally, its holder is ‘validated’ forever. Successful enrolment is not only about sound processes; it also involves creating the optimum physical environment for, say, photos or iris scans to be taken.  Building an identity register with biometric information on individuals, such as iris patterns, will help reduce the incidence of multiple identities and identity fraud, as each new record can be quickly checked against all existing records to ensure that there is no duplication.

There are other issues surrounding electronic identity, not least of which is the task of dealing with all the data involved. Systems must be able to match and validate biometric data — often against enormous databases — and bring together information from different legacy systems. This is frequently the case in advanced industrial nations, where there may be many such disparate legacy systems to be integrated.

These issues are not insurmountable. At any rate, events are serving to ensure that they will be resolved: the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the European Union are just two major institutions that are introducing the use of biometric data in personal ID. Successful systems are already running around the world. At Schiphol airport in the Netherlands, for example, an iris recognition system provides ‘fast track’ border crossing for frequent travellers. Moreover smartcards with biometric data are improving security and access for a number of large corporations.

There is no doubt that electronic identity systems have many benefits. To make sure that they are a solution and not a problem, businesses and the public need to be aware of these benefits; and care must be taken to ensure the systems are as robust as they possibly can be.







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