New DCMS agency to oversee digital identity laws

Legislation to be passed to put digital IDs on same legal footing as physical documents
QR code on smartphone screen

By Sam Trendall

23 Mar 2022

The government is to introduce legislation and create a new Whitehall entity with the aim of enabling digital identification to stand on the same legal footing as hard-copy documents such as passports and driving licences.

Following a public consultation, an Office for Digital Identities and Attributes (ODIA) will be established in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

The government claimed that the unit will serve as the “interim governing body for digital identities”.

Once the necessary legislation passes, its duties will include issuing “an easily recognised trustmark” that will be awarded to organisations offering digital-identity systems. To obtain this certification, providers will need to “adhere to the highest standards of security and privacy”, according to DCMS.

The new laws, which “the government intends to bring forward… when parliamentary time allows” will also make provisions for the creation of “a legal gateway to allow trusted organisations to carry out verification checks against official data held by public bodies to help validate a person’s identity”.

It will also enshrine in the statute books that “digital forms of identification are equal to physical forms of identification, such as physical passports”.

Digital IDs include documents accessed via websites or mobile applications. Examples of their potential use cited by the government include allowing people to buy age-restricted products or prove their identity in order to access services. 

DCMS said: “It will be for people and businesses to decide what digital identity technology works for them to prove their identity – should they choose to create a digital identity at all."

It added: “The government… is committed to ensuring digital identities are not compulsory and people will still be able to use available paper documentation.”

According to the department, the intention of the legislation is to promote forms of identification that better protect individuals’ privacy as they do not need to disclose the kind of personal information that is often plainly visible on physical documents. 

“Digital identities can also help tackle fraud… by reducing the amount of personal data shared online and making it harder for fraudsters to obtain and use stolen identities,” it added.

Ahead of the legislation being introduced, the government has already introduced legislation that, from 6 April, will allow property agents and employers to conduct right to work and right to rent checks digitally.

Heather Wheeler, a junior minister at the Cabinet Office, said: “The government is delivering a number of ambitious and interlinked policy initiatives to prepare the UK for the digital world, and to improve the lives of businesses and citizens. These initiatives, alongside enabling legislation, will help ensure the UK is able to take full advantage of the opportunities that digital identities and the wider digital economy have to offer."

The project to develop the new government-wide login system – and accompanying GOV.UK app – includes the creation of a smartphone application through which users can digitally verify their identity. Professional services giant Deloitte recently won a £4.8m contract to support the development of the verification app, which will be based on near-field communication – the technology embedded in most smartphones that enables devices to make mobile payments and scan biometric documents. The software may also support the use of other forms of biometric identification, such as facial or fingerprint recognition.

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared

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