National Digital ID could be a digital nightmare


Everybody expects to do things quickly and safely on the web. A personal digital ID would help sign on to multiple government services. They haven’t yet hit the radar of most Canadians, but digital IDs have already arrived in Alberta and BC. The Government of Canada has made it a priority to develop a national digital identity. This plan is laid out in the Digital Ambition document released in early August. 

Meanwhile, some other jurisdictions (Ontario and Saskatchewan come to mind) have delayed or cancelled plans to roll out digital identities. As usual with pan-Canadian programs, the initiative is influenced by a mishmash of federal and provincial programs and regulations. A key benefit is faster and simpler access, with less personal information being collected and stored by individual government services.  Biometrics would recognize a fingerprint, face, etc., further limiting fraudulent access.

A Government of Canada digital identity would represent a fundamental shift in Canada’s digital landscape. It worries privacy watchdogs, and it worries us at DFFRNT. Without serious consultation with users and user experience experts, it has the potential to go wrong. 

There are legal concerns, implications for large private-sector organizations (banking, for example), as well as human rights issues. Many of those are beyond my scope of expertise, but I can speak to usability concerns based on my years of experience. 

What is a digital identity? 

First, let’s clarify. The term “digital ID” can encompass a range of software tools and a variety of functions:

  • Authentication: It can simply be an authenticator used across several digital platforms for secure login (like your Google sign-in being used for various websites/apps). 
  • Identity verification: A digital ID can be used to prove you are actually you (like a passport). 
  • Authorization: The digital identity can contain digital versions of important government documents, such as the vaccine passport app, health records or driver’s licence, which allow citizens to receive services.

One commentator on digital policy said a digital identity would be like your passport combined with your password manager. 

Provide incentives before having to enforce 

Close up of black hands of woman sitting in airport lounge checking her valid digital vaccination passport for covid19 while holding face mask and boarding pass.

Several countries are more advanced than Canada in this process, and their experience underscores the fact that we must research and respect the needs of all citizens when implementing this change. Testing and iterative, human-centred design will be vital as the government moves forward with this initiative. 

  • Provide the ability to view how the ID is being used 
  • Alert users when a risky situation is imminent 
  • Incentivize before enforcement 
  • Let users control their privacy and employ role-based privacy settings

Working on this problem will require designers to address the needs of multiple stakeholders. Many will be using it for transactions, border-crossing, and other situations. Further complicating the issue, “the public,” “Canadians,” “consumers,” and “citizens” are not homogenous groups. Canada’s Digital ID project is massive in scale and implication. It requires human-centered, data-driven, strategic decisions. 

Digital ID and fintech 

Without a doubt, we must modernize the technology that supports government programs and services. We need to make them accessible and efficient. But we need to do so in a user-centric manner, where the “user” is the citizen, not the department’s IT support team. 

The technical aspects of credentials and trust can be surmounted; what really needs study is how to give users meaningful, simple control over their information and identity attributes. Let’s not get caught up in making the system work for the government and its hundreds of online services. Make it work for the users. 

Trust in digital identification is closely tied to trust in financial institutions. We know from fintech and the evolution of online banking that we have the ability to establish parameters of trust. We do this through design, by design. 

Trust underpins a well-functioning monetary system. Users at all levels trust that the object functioning as money will be accepted. In this environment, developing institutional technology that inspires trust is a challenge, but with skill, experience and user input, it can be done. 

Efficient movement also underpins our whole economy: efficient transactions and shipments, as well as a mobile labour force. Financial institutions want a digital ID for the benefit of their clients. In the big picture, it benefits the economy. Faster transactions and supply chains are directly linked to our well-being and prosperity.

Trust and speed rely on validation of identity. But that validation is under scrutiny as nations try to implement what some call a “social credit” system. The Fast Identity Online Alliance is standardizing authentication that is more secure than passwords. 

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