Digital Identity – All About That Choice

Brian Lee-Archer

“All About That Bass” is the debut single by American singer and songwriter Meghan Trainor. It was released by Epic Records on June 30, 2014. One interpretation of the song title and lyrics is a callout to embrace inner beauty and to promote a positive body image and self-acceptance. To put it simply, people should be free to choose how they look and others should respect that choice.

People make life choices and there are risks involved – eat this, don’t eat that, avoid this, do more of that. It is all part of the rich tapestry of life. Public policymakers have an obligation to inform people of potential risks and to reflect attitudes of the broader community through legislation to prevent or sanction behaviours that can cause harm.

In a free society, however, people have the opportunity to exercise a wide range of life choices where society is prepared to accept some risk. Therefore, people have the opportunity to make decisions that may inadvertently lead to negative outcomes. In the public policy discourse, these consequences are weighed up against the overall positive outcomes achieved through allowing people to have choice.

It’s a pity we can’t adopt the same attitude towards digital identity; too often it gets caught up in an all-or-nothing debate. One of the benefits of the digital revolution is the capability to move away from one-size-fits-all business models. Services, including government services, can now be tailored based on the needs, wants, and capabilities of the person who will consume those services. Instead of the service provider prescribing the mode of delivery, the consumer can exercise choice. But in exercising choice, there is a different risk profile for each option. People need to be informed of the risks and their choices should then be respected.

My colleague, Kathleen O’Brien, global industry principal for public sector at SAP Hybris, wrote in a recent op-ed published in the Australian:

As we continue our journey into the data-driven and digital world in which we live, I encourage Australians to not be unnerved by the Government’s efforts to adopt a digital-first approach. There is much to gain from the changes, and embracing these types of digital platforms is essential in positioning Australia as a leader in the global economy, which is fast moving to digital services.

The concern is that as governments take steps to provide much-needed digital identity infrastructure, there will be a chorus of opposition rolling out the traditional arguments of privacy, data protection, trust in government, Big Brother,etc. These are risks which the public needs to be informed about, but they should not be used as a one-size-fits-all barrier to a digital identity system for those people who want to voluntarily opt-in and exercise choice.

There are daily reports and warnings of cybercrime, data breaches, and hacking – yet the public’s appetite to engage in digital commerce and services using digital credentials to identify themselves, such as fingerprints for their smartphones and tablets, continues to grow. It is clear a sizable proportion of the population is ready to access digital services through a digital identity. True, their appreciation of the risks involved may not all be the same and in some cases may be naïve, but this is no different to how people assess risk for a range of lifestyle factors. Should the opponents of a digital identity system be allowed to deny the benefits of same for those who want it and who are prepared to accept the risks involved?

The world has moved on since Orwell’s 1984. A key feature of the digital revolution is its empowering nature for individuals where choice is king and one-size-fits-all service delivery models can be sent to the museum. It is a valid choice to stay out of the digital space and live in a world of paper documents where your personal information is kept well out of harm’s way. Policymakers and the community need to respect the choices people make and legislate, where appropriate, to provide protections that enable, not restrict, people’s choices.

Policymakers have shown they can be adept at setting laws and policies that enable choice while allowing people to bear a risk burden that comes with the choices they make – the aim is to do the same with a digital identity. It’s all about that choice.

As for the koala picture— what is its connection to digital identity? Koalas are the only other animal that, like humans, have individual fingerprints.  Their fingerprints, although distinguishable, appear similar to humans.  So you might need to be careful about lending a koala your smartphone.

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Brian Lee-Archer

About Brian Lee-Archer

Brian Lee-Archer is director of the SAP Institute for Digital Government Global (SIDG). Launched in 2015, SIDG is a global think tank that aims to create value for government by leveraging digital capability to meet the needs of citizens and consumers of government services. In collaboration with government agencies, universities and partner organizations, SIDG facilitates innovation through digital technology for deeper policy insight and improved service delivery.