To Build a Digital Identity System, Governments Must Build Trust About Data Collection: Panelists

Citizens need to know what kind of data is collected and why to accept a digital identity system.

To Build a Digital Identity System, Governments Must Build Trust About Data Collection: Panelists
Hannes Astok, Kay McGowan, George Ingram, Christopher Burns, and Pramod Varma at Wednesday's event.

WASHINGTON, March 21, 2022 – Trust in how governments handle data is a critical piece in developing a successful government digital identification system.

Some governments around the world are incorporating a system in which citizens have a digital identity for verification. The United States Agency for International Development is involved in planning for digital identity to involve more people for its global aid and development programs. But the missing link is the need for people to trust their data is in good hands, according to experts.

“Trust is the critical piece to a successful digital system development and deployment,” Chris Burns, chief digital development officer at USAID, said on a panel discussion hosed by the Brookings Institution on Wednesday.

“For example, program monitoring, patient tracking through health services, voter registration and authentication, and the administration of humanitarian assistance,” he said. “Digital identification systems are also becoming foundational to service delivery and to development assistance.”

The foundation of trust

Hannes Astok, executive director and chairman of the management board of Estonia’s e-Governance Academy, said on the panel that trust has some foundational principles.

“First of all, it should be agreed, in society, what kind of data [an entity] collects about you…and the reason why the data is collected.” Astok said. “Secondly, it should be clear that ownership of data belongs to the citizens or the businesses who are providing the data to the government. The government is just handling it,” he said.

A digital ID is required in Estonia, where it began such a system almost 30 years ago. The country saw how the world was moving more toward the digital sphere, said Astok, and wanted to use digital databases for their citizens’ information.

“Citizens must have traditional paper- and plastic-based documents, [but] also a digital identity, allowing them to securely use government services,” he said.

Kay McGowan, senior director for research, policy, and advocacy at Digital Impact Alliance, recommended democracies and open societies to think “beyond the technology and the technical capacities,” and to instead focus on “the data governance.

“Data governance is just as important as the actual technology platform itself,” she said.

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