April 16, 2019

Digital Identities in the UAE - quicker, easier, more secure?

It has been suggested that cross-platform online identity solutions may replace current forms of identification, make access to services easier for consumers and mitigate certain data protection risks. This article looks at current issues, some future visions and the possible role of the UAE Government.

The UAE has already taken positive steps towards creating a single user ID platform for access to Government services via launching the SmartPass mobile app in 2018

A fully functioning, cross-platform digital identity system – underpinned by a common technical standards framework and accompanying legal or contractual framework – will increase identity security, enhance personal control and minimise unnecessary data sharing. It will also promote innovative services and reduce compliance and administrative costs, both for businesses with a need to conduct "know your customer" due diligence and also for government, in the context of administering government services. Robust and widely adopted digital identity standards will also promote more seamless cross-border services. These are some of the conclusions noted in a paper ("The case for digital IDs") recently published by Tech UK, a United Kingdom technology industry group. The issues described in the paper are not specific to the UK and are relevant to any modern digital economy, such as the UAE.

Current issues

Current methods of identity verification typically involve the creation, retention, renewal and production-when-required of a physical document of some sort or the use of a specific password / username (maybe with a further layer of authentication) online log-in. These methods do not always sit easily with the supply and use of digital services and/or are susceptible to security problems or inefficiencies.  

Physical documents

Physical documentation is susceptible to loss and theft. There is a cost of production and of replacement and renewal. Energy and time is involved in having a physical document verified and inspected in person. Counterfeit documentation is produced and genuine documents are sometimes fraudulently obtained. The need to hold certain types of physical documentation can also disenfranchise some individuals without access to the required documents or the institutions which issue them in the first place.

From a data protection perspective, the use of physical documentation to verify identity (a utility bill, a marriage certificate, a passport, for example) may reveal far more information than the verifying party actually needs to know for the purposes of the transaction at hand. In addition to infringing the principle of data minimisation (that no more personal data should be collected than is necessary for the purpose), the collection of more data than necessary also imposes an increased compliance risk and storage burden on the verifier. A solution for business which provides the necessary affirmation without the need to store and collect unwanted information – therefore being legally responsible for its control and processing - would be welcome.

Online verification

Online verification via username / password combination is susceptible to attacks via techniques such as brute-force (using an automated tool to try thousands of the most common combinations), traffic monitoring (unsecured networks, such as public Wi-Fi networks, can be monitored) and via malware delivered via phishing attacks or unsafe websites. Corporate data breaches can also lead to the loss of customer and staff details, such as usernames and passwords. 

The need to log-in to numerous platforms to access different services also, in theory, requires people to remember similarly numerous usernames and passwords. In the real world, it is more likely that usernames and passwords are replicated across multiple platforms, meaning that the effects of a security breach can be multiplied rapidly. Once a hacker has stolen verification details he or she can run them through programmes that will automatically test them against thousands of websites and log-in portals and report on successful hits. 

There are additional layers of authentication that can be added to help protect against the risks associated with simple username/password combinations but such additional layers will either involve sharing more personal information (such as a mobile phone number) or the use of additional authentication tokens which will vary from platform to platform and increase the administrative burden of managing one's digital ID.

Potential solutions

A number of independent developers have proposed various types of single sign-on solutions which use, for example, blockchain technology to authenticate user identities and complete transactions whilst sharing minimal information with the transaction counterparty. In those scenarios, Party B does not find out information about Party A other than the minimum necessary to perform the transaction (which may simply be confirmation that something has been verified, rather than any detailed data relating to the counterparty). For example, Party B might receive verification that Party A is over 18 years old but no more information than that; this is achieved by Party A permitting Party B's platform to interrogate Party A's digital ID; Party B will not be told Party A's date of birth if the only condition that needs to be verified is that Party A's age is at least 18 years.  Under older methods of age verification, Party A may have needed to produce a document that would show his/her date of birth, address, marital status etc. as a by-product of proving age. The proposition is that transactional security is enhanced for individuals and the compliance burden is minimised for businesses.

Of course, it is important that such solutions themselves are secured. Whilst a cross-platform solution might reduce the amount of data that needs to be shared to complete a given transaction (and therefore contribute to reducing the transactional data protection risk), there is potentially a single point of failure when it comes to maintaining personal online security if such a solution can itself be hacked or otherwise compromised and contains all the elements of an individual's digital ID. It may be that advances in cryptography can help in this regard (in particular, "zero knowledge" cryptography), to ensure that stolen data is not easily intelligible.   

The role of Government in the UAE

The UAE's short and medium-term technology agenda is ambitious. The UAE has already taken positive steps towards creating a single user ID platform for access to Government services via launching the SmartPass mobile app in 2018. In parallel, the mGovernment roadmap seeks to digitise and mobilise the delivery of services, which one would imagine will be key to ensuring high levels of public uptake of SmartPass. 

As noted, new technologies will likely have an increasing part to play in the delivery of online services and it seems extremely likely that private sector innovation will inform the direction of travel in this space. What Tech UK says is needed, is for governments to produce coherent strategies which link the public and private sectors and promote the widespread adoption of trusted standards and norms.

In addition, online services flow- across borders. For a digital ID to be universally effective, taking into account the global basis on which people operate and consume online services, then international standards will need to be developed and implemented to avoid further piecemeal approaches.

It will be interesting to see how governments in the UAE, the UK and elsewhere incentivise and manage the standardisation of cross-platform digital identity verification and whether a regime of international standards can be developed.