At a recent roundtable in partnership with Wired, Doug Brown, Head of Data, Cyber and AI Guild and Chief Data Scientist of Capita Consulting, was joined by Lisa Talia Moretti, a digital sociologist at the Ministry of Justice; Reid Darby, innovation lead at Golden Valley Development in Cheltenham; Carly Kind, Director at the Ada Lovelace Institute and Tavi Kotka, an engineer/entrepreneur and former Chief Information Officer for the Estonian government to discuss data, identity and the digital citizen.
When discussing themes surrounding data, identity and digital citizenship, it’s important to remember that behind all of the narratives, a human story must remain at the heart of decision-making. Digital citizenship, whilst having its own challenges, should at the end of the day provide users with the ability to interact with services and facilitate the value exchange for citizens as a result of providing data. The pandemic and its associated effects on face-to-face contact, the implementation of Covid-19 ‘passports’ and the move of some public services to an online provision have created impetus around this conversation. How the UK could introduce such systems, whilst keeping the user and their data protected was discussed at length at the Wired Roundtable, and the challenges of such implementation, including privacy, lack of trust and economic barriers were greatly debated.
The British government may be beginning to take steps in the right direction regarding digital citizenship but, before any real change can take place, the historical mistrust of government by the public with regards to data and privacy must be addressed. Over the last 10 years there has been a huge shift in how people understand and value their data. Far larger groups of the public are now more educated on the value of their data and view it as something that should be protected. Recent discussions surrounding data privacy and sovereignty as the NHS data sharing initiative was announced have highlighted this further. With such raised awareness on the topic, transparency in how our data is used and permissions regarding who has access to it are now more important than ever. We know that solutions to the digital citizenship question within the UK are available and it’s important we use the data we have to help inform our approach to resolving this.
The past 18 months have raised a variety of questions surrounding personal data and privacy with traditional health information collection quickly moving to digital location tracking in an attempt to control the spread of Covid-19 in many countries. Despite the varying approaches and actions of governments worldwide, international public opinion regarding the use of data is fairly similar, with some notable exceptions of more digitally advanced nations such as Estonia. Many have been shown to support the sharing of their personal health data with the goal of protecting their health and that of the community; however, they are notably reticent to share non-health related information, such as location or financial transaction data, even if it is used to track potential contact with those infected. Not all information is valued as equal. Travel, mobile location, and financial transaction data is shown to be information that the majority of the public are unwilling to share even for disease detection and containment.
Within the UK, the introduction of the NHS vaccine status app has shown the public the benefits of digitised services and has created the opportunity to begin a far more dynamic and interesting conversation around the nuances of the arguments and opinions held by the British population on digital citizenship, data sharing and privacy. The British public is more likely to trust a data sharing service when the service rendered is directly beneficial to them and focuses on providing a specific outcome. Detaching the idea of digitised public services from national digital identities, and focusing on the services provided with citizens at the heart of planning and execution, may perhaps be a way in which the government can begin to gain back public trust. The recently published ‘Digital Identity and Attributes Trust Framework’ whitepaper from the UK government lays out the rules organisations should follow, including the principles, policies, procedures and standards governing the use of digital identity within the UK. It also covers areas such as how organisations should handle and protect people's data, what security and encryption standard should be followed and how to protect yourself against misuse and fraud, all of which, if appropriately followed, could help increase trust in government and its use of our data.
Whilst the NHS app has arguably been a success, it has also highlighted some of the challenges we face with regards to national digital identity verification and the inadequacy of our current national data strategy in addressing some of these data usage issues. Due to the lack of a standardised system in the UK, to gain access to vaccination status individuals must go through a sophisticated ID proofing process within the app. The uptake and completion of this process throughout the UK has been positive, however it has highlighted that the majority of those doing so are completing the verification for the purposes of foreign travel and therefore are not representative of the full British public. When strategizing on how to best implement a national data verification service in the future, it’s important that we make the service accessible to all and not only the digital elite or high-income groups.
As we continue to become a more digital society these issues will become increasingly acute. The UK National Data Strategy does not go far enough to address the issues of data privacy and how we can practically begin to create a digital citizen centred approach in accessing and maximising the experience of government services. To achieve this, the UK government must firstly overcome the trust issues present between the public and the public sector and should begin to do so by seeking a use case to start the digital journey. Other countries have blazed a digital trail for us to learn from and add to. We have talked enough, action is required. Any future initiatives must ensure that they are desirable, bring value to the public and remain achievable and economically viable. To do so, rather than conducting further research in isolation, let’s use the opportunity to build a solution which will enable us to discover and learn about the unique composition of British public opinion at a deeper level, particularly that of vulnerable communities. What do people want when it comes to data matching and linking across government? Where do they draw the line between convenience and intrusion? What is the data driven society that we want to live in and how do we get there? These are all questions we must know the answers to before we attempt to bridge the gap to digitised national citizenship.