It’s Past Time for the Federal Government to Offer Electronic IDs

Ashley Johnson December 11, 2020
December 11, 2020

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the widespread adoption of digital technologies that make people’s lives easier while staying at home and social distancing. Digital tools and services like video conferencing, online shopping, food delivery, contactless payments, telehealth, streaming media, and more have become an integral part of millions of Americans’ daily lives. But even with all these advances, one central problem remains: Americans cannot easily prove their identity online, limiting the use of many online services and making others less secure.

A government-backed electronic identification (e-ID) system would fix this problem. Renewed bipartisan efforts in Congress to create a framework for deploying an e-ID system began in September when Reps. Bill Foster (D-IL), John Katko (R-NY), Jim Langevin (D-RI), and Barry Loudermilk (R-GA) introduced the Improving Digital Identity Act of 2020. The legislation would establish a task force of representatives from federal agencies and state and local government to develop an interoperable, governmentwide framework for securely issuing and validating e-IDs. In addition, it would direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to draw up technology standards for e-IDs and offer grants via the Department of Homeland Security for states to implement e-IDs.

In an increasingly digital world, e-IDs promise to enable more secure online applications and transactions, streamline e-government services, and reduce identity theft and fraud. If designed right, e-IDs can also increase privacy for consumers by allowing them to share less information with third parties, such as allowing someone to prove they are over the age of 21 without providing their date of birth. Recognizing the benefits, countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia have invested in national e-ID systems that allow their citizens to more securely access government services, bank online, and sign contracts. Stakeholders in financial services, healthcare, tech, and security have urged the U.S. government to catch up to other countries by establishing an implementation plan that will make e-IDs accessible and available to all Americans.

Government investment in e-IDs is crucial to accelerate their development and implementation. Because e-ID systems exhibit strong network effects whereby the value of the technology grows as the number of users increase, the private sector faces an uphill battle in developing, implementing, and accepting e-IDs. But government-issued e-IDs, coupled with online government services that make use of these new e-IDs, would establish the critical mass needed for e-IDs to take off in the United States in both the public and private sector. Furthermore, because state governments already have processes for issuing IDs, interoperable state government-issued e-IDs are one of the best place to begin the transition to identification-IDs.

The Improving Digital Identity Act is a good first step. It addresses both the supply and the demand side of e-ID implementation, with a task force to determine how to securely develop e-IDs as well as a grant program to encourage adoption at the state level. These grants would fund state efforts to upgrade systems that provide drivers’ licenses and other state-issued IDs and would require states to adhere to NIST’s technological standards for e-IDs. This type of coordination is necessary for residents of all states to gain access to e-IDs.

The pressure is on for the U.S. government to do what it should have done years ago. At the start of the pandemic, many states faced an unprecedented amount of paperwork as millions of citizens filed for unemployment and other benefits. Part of the reason it was so difficult to process these applications, is that verifying the identity of applicants for government benefits still occurs offline. Efforts to develop e-IDs in the United States have stalled in the past, in part because of a lack of political will. But the COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a wake-up call that the U.S. government is lagging behind on e-IDs and it’s past time to offer secure electronic identification to any U.S. resident who wants one.