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Digital identity: reflection must take place at international level

Joni Brennan, President at the Digital ID & Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC) reflects on DIACC contribution to the report “Universal Digital Identity Policy Principles to Maximize Benefits for People: a shared European and Canadian perspective”. 

Although multiple Canadian provinces have either launched or made investments in digital ID products and services, federal funding and cohesive leadership remains the missing piece. Notably, in June of 2021, the European Commission proposed a trusted and secure digital ID framework for all European citizens.

This joint project between HTF and DIACC has resulted in recommendations to ensure the social acceptance of ongoing digital identity strategies. The report lists the characteristics of a digital identity that maximises the benefits for citizens, including reducing the amount of information disclosed and protecting, where possible, the anonymity of the user. It also addresses the issue of privatisation of identity certification processes and the elements of governance that can build public trust. 

Read the full report here

1. What is the Canadian context regarding Digital Identity?

Canada's governance model is distributed across Federal, Territorial, and Municipal governments, and its population is very diverse within the territory. These may be two influencing conditions regarding a generalized non-acceptance of a national identity card type of credential. Canadians would much prefer the ability to hold and control different identity credentials issued by different authorities depending on the type of transaction to be completed. 


Digital identity in Canada is interesting in part because use cases related to identity are applicable in many different contexts. For example, if a person wishes to present a digital identity credential to a financial institution to open a bank account. The requirements for opening a bank account are Federally regulated, and a credential that includes verified identity information, such as a driver's license, is under the authority of a Province. This is an example of three vectors of collaboration - federal government, provincial government, and private sector. Most importantly, the person is at the center of this collaborative ecosystem. As such, public and private sector collaboration is required to ensure that digital identity related capabilities are designed with the person's needs and benefits at the center. This includes the availability of public and private services. 

2. What are the most discussed use cases in Canada?

Some of the most widely discussed use cases are those related to the finance sector given existing collaborations and an ecosystem that has interoperability already built into its foundation. 

Some of the reasons for this are:

  • Canadian banks are already required to collaborate by law to meet regulations and to protect clients and the economy.
  • The finance sector also must adhere to international economic regulations such as Know Your Client and Anti-Money Laundering.

The potential benefits and risks of inaction regarding digital identity capabilities are well recognized by Canadian governments and private sector institutions alike. Given this mutual recognition of benefits and risks, and given the pervasive and powerful impacts regarding financial inclusion and socioeconomic growth, financial based use cases tend to get significant focus. 


Of course, financial based use cases are not the only area of focus. Many use case types are discussed in the report including and not limited to:

  • Public sector benefits delivery modernization
  • Academic credentials for domestic and international students
  • Protecting minors online
  • Personal health data management
  • Business to business transactions
  • Verification of beneficial ownership, directors and officers

3. What are the main challenges to implementing a user-centric digital identity?

Today there are many types of technical solutions that can enable this vision, and more technical solutions will continue to emerge. These existing and emerging technologies will have the opportunity to gain adoption and continue to innovate if they are supported by universal guiding policy design principles that inform policy development and modernization. The benefits of well designed and future proofed policy are many. This is one of the reasons that DIACC has been thoroughly engaged and committed to our relationship with the Human Technology Foundation to amplify the challenges and opportunities while informing public and private sector discussion that leads to impactful action.


One of the challenges related to implementing user-centric digital identity solutions and services may be a need for policy and regulatory modernization. While existing policy and regulations in and across Canada are being modernized, especially related to privacy protection modernization, to fully enable the benefits of user-centric design people must also be empowered with agency and control over data about them that is verified by an authority. Specifically, people must be empowered with the ability to know what data exists about them within public and private sector entities and the ability to securely control that data to fulfill their own needs. However, the agency and empowerment that comes with personal data control must also be protected with transparent governance and defined accountability. 


4. What insights can Canada bring to international discussion ? 

Some may see Canada as a smaller version of a federation of government like the European Union. Canada shares similar and common digital identity related opportunities and challenges with the European Union, as well as other jurisdictions around the world. This said, Canada is a smaller ecosystem than the European Union and, as such, Canada has the opportunity to potentially offer the ability to be nimble and agile regarding testing and applying user-centric approaches. 


Urgency and action is needed now and Canadian entities are making a significant and sustained investment in the advancement of modern, privacy-enhancing, and secure digital identity capabilities and guiding policy. More specifically DIACC, and our many members, are eager to work together to ensure that technology and policy is designed with people and their benefits at the center.

Article 29/11/2022

To go further on the subject :

Ensuring the Right to Privacy and Transparency in the Digital Identity Ecosystem in Canada-Privacy Commissioner of Canada

Panel on "Unlocking the potential of digital identity in Canada"- EY, ITH, DIACC

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