The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is examining some of the issues that legislators and technology providers will need to consider as they work to implement digital identities. The organization is particularly concerned about privacy, and the possibility that digital IDs could be used to exacerbate the inequalities that already exist in modern society.
In that regard, the EFF distinguished between decentralized identities (which are controlled solely by the owner) and digital IDs that are issued by a government or some other organization, such as a mobile driver’s license. It noted that while decentralized identities are more private, it may be difficult to for verifiers to confirm the integrity of the information.
Official IDs, on the other hand, raise a slew of privacy and ethical concerns, especially since consumer protections are often recommendations rather than official law. Without more stringent legislation, there is nothing to stop governments and private organizations from collecting personal information and user data whenever a digital ID gets presented. A digital ID program could also lead to the construction of a massive national ID database that allows a government to monitor the activity of all of its citizens. Such a system would be extremely harmful to vulnerable populations such as immigrants and people of color, since it would further codify the bias they already experience on a regular basis.
Despite those concerns, the EFF acknowledged that digital IDs could be deployed in a more positive way, and with respect to the civil rights of ID holders. For example, an ID holder could prove that they do, in fact, have a certain credential, or are over a certain age, without disclosing any other personal information. Alternatively, the ID holder could share a one-time digital document that gets destroyed after the verifier confirms it is legitimate.
A privacy-by-design system would allow people to gain access to various goods and services without needing to submit excessive personal details, and could benefit disadvantaged populations that face discrimination in the current system. The challenge will be getting public and private organizations to adhere to those guidelines. At the very least, the EFF argues that any digital ID system needs to be an opt-in system, and that stronger digital privacy legislation will be needed to protect the basic rights of international civilians.
September 4, 2020 – by Eric Weiss