Last updated 29 March 2021
Electronic national ID cards (eID cards) have been introduced in numerous countries worldwide. Furthermore, they are being utilized with ever-growing enthusiasm by their citizens.
But serious concerns are still voiced in countries yet to adopt such microprocessor-based smart card technology.
Common criticisms of eID schemes include the following:
- The potential threat posed to civil rights and privacy,
- A lack of confidence in the reliability and safety of such systems,
- A belief that they are unnecessary and irrelevant.
However, a measured assessment of the many successful national eID deployments now up and running provides five clear and compelling responses to these and other fears.
In this web dossier, we try to bring facts to the debate over national ID cards.
So, what are the benefits of national identity cards?
#1: National ID and the digital world
In the past decade, the number of digital exchanges has increased exponentially.
But prominent attractions of ease of use go hand-in-hand with the widely held perception that electronic media is relatively fragile.
The absence of traditional "written proof" and eyewitnesses, characteristic of electronic means of exchange, has quickly led to the need for a solution to guarantee the identity of the issuer or the receiver.
Since 1997, the design, production, and deployment of secure national electronic ID cards have sought to meet such a requirement.
As a result, the idea of an ID card valid for the physical and digital domains has become a reality for millions.
Some visionary countries have also leaped to mobile identity or m-ID, meaning creating a mechanism - initiated using the national eID component - for accessing online services with a high level of security thanks to mobile devices.
Today, more than 70 countries have set up a national ID scheme, most issuing electronic national ID cards.
Moreover, the electronic format of such cards means that, in addition to being employed for electronic signature applications, they are also ideally suited to other use cases, as detailed in our report on national ID trends updated in January 2021.
Typically these can include granting the user access to company infrastructures or secure locations and incorporating social security cards and, in some countries, driver licenses, healthcare cards, "pass cards" for transport services, payment cards, and even bank cards.
These give birth to many applications we detail in our Belgium, Portugal, or Germany dossiers.
Typically, this is what we discovered in our winter trip study to Kuwait this year.
We spotted innovative and useful applications.
- With the new Civil ID, any citizen can access electronic social security services, using their eID as the primary authentication tool at a new network of self-service kiosks.
- Kuwait Oil Company has deployed self-service kiosks for its employees to simplify HR and payroll certificates. Employees can now access the service using their eID to view and print all required documents with complete privacy.
- Kuwait Credit Bank has deployed the national eID as the most secure tool to access its online services and apply for governmental loans. The card is also the key to authenticate through the bank's web portal.
- Money transfers and cash withdrawals are facilitated in the country with the use of the national ID card.
- Using the online service provided by the Ministry of Justice, lawyers can now access the government portal using their national eID and sign and upload lawsuits digitally.
So why are so many countries relying on smart eID technologies?
#2: The technology used is robust and fit for the purpose
Using EMV chip cards, billions of dollars are sent worldwide daily without being stolen.
The very same technology can be used to address the growing threat of identity fraud.
The microprocessor-based smart card (and SIM card in your mobile phone) protecting identity credentials is considered the most secure authentication means.
It makes it possible to prevent identity fraud and effectively protect citizens' data.
That's why it is established as the media of choice for granting access to e-Government applications.
This approach can also host various other services and use cases, such as e-payments, e-purses, digital signatures, authentication, identification, and travel cards.
This technology now protects over 1,2B travel documents at the end of 2020. They are commonly known as electronic passports and are available in 120 countries.
The move to electronic passports started in 2006.
University ID cards or military ID cards use the same technology as well.
#3: A national ID card scheme can lead to greater transparency
One example of a national ID scheme that empowers citizens is Belgium's eID project.
The law that accompanied the introduction of the new eID card in Belgium required the government to offer citizens a "My File" application accessible online.
This app allows people to know who has accessed their data.
A query or complaint form is made available to citizens, who can also request that the government justifies any recorded access. Similar rights apply in several other European electronic ID schemes.
The takeaway lesson?
A fundamental democratic principle is observed: when a new constraint is introduced (in this case, digital footprints), a new right is provided (transparency).
A record is kept each time Belgium's National Register data is accessed by a government official, noting the identity and place of work of the official who accessed the personal data of a citizen and the date it took place.
In the six months following access, citizens can consult their databases to view this information.
#4: "1984" did not happen
The fear that an ID card system represents the start of a slippery slope to greater surveillance and citizens' monitoring has proved unfounded.
Quite simply, the oppressive scenario described by George Orwell in his novel "1984" did not happen.
A national ID scheme is not synonymous with totalitarian governments wielding absolute power.
The reality is that "1984" did not come true in Austria, Finland, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Estonia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Portugal, South Africa, Uruguay, or Chile – to name just some of the many countries that have so far moved to eID.
And remember: an eID card will always remain where you want it - in your pocket or mobile phone.
You alone decide if and when you want to use it.
But you may think: "OK, I get all that. But HOW do we do it?".
Let's dig in.
#5: National ID system: Building the chain of trust
The issue of legal continuity is at the heart of the digital transformation of our exchanges and transactions. Whatever the media, digital exchanges should enjoy the same legal security as their physical equivalents.
Governments worldwide seek to boost efficiency, economic development, and inclusion to better serve their citizens in a reliable, secure, and transparent way.
UK said "no" to a national ID card but "yes" to a national eID scheme.
The case of the UK national ID card is also interesting. The UK clearly said "no" to a UK ID card in 2010.
This decision was taken by the new government and announced by Theresa May, the Home Secretary at that time.
However, a separate scheme under which identity cards are issued to all foreign nationals resident in Britain was confirmed.
Discover the UK ID for residents here.
Much of the protest was focused on creating a National Identity Register holding up to 50 different pieces of information on each citizen rather than the card itself. The £60 price tag for the ID card was too high for a low perceived value.
GOV.UK Verify was born in 2015 and in a different context. Identity fraud is high in the UK, and 84% of all identity fraud was committed online in 2014.
As a result, there is far greater acceptance of the need for tighter security in general and online identity protection in particular.
With the rapid adoption of a host of mobile and online services, secure authentication of one form or another has become part and parcel of everyday life.
UK Verify offers a single, legally recognized means of online authentication. It's a new way to prove who you are online. It gives safer, simpler, and faster access to government services. It is designed to unlock the door to a new era of eGovernment in the UK.
UK Verify's future (October 2020 update)
Verify is reaching a milestone in the second part of 2019, with 5 million users registered.
It's far from the aggressive target of 25 million accounts by 2020 planned at the beginning.
Computer Weekly shows about 40,000-45,000 new users are signing up weekly.
Things changed in March 2020.
Due to the huge surge of universal credit applicants online due to the pandemic, the Treasury decided to grant Verify another 18-month funding (till the end of 2021).
The number of digital identities created by Verify reached 6.7m in October 2020.
Its future is still challenged, and whether Verify would be the UK national digital identity system across the public and private sectors is unclear.
But clearly, digital identities have become essential in the UK.
The case of national ID in India: the ID is the number
Launched in 2009, Aadhaar is now the largest biometric identification scheme globally, with 1,289B people enrolled as of 29 March 2021.
With Aadhaar, each resident over 18 in India is issued their unique national identification number, the 12-digit Aadhaar number.
It's a single, universal digital identity number that any registered entity can use to "authenticate" an Indian resident.
The unique number and biographic information are printed on a paper document known as the Aadhaar card.
Anyone who has lived in India for 182 days can enroll in Aadhaar for proof of identity. So it's a residential card, not a citizenship card, per se.
Most importantly, the ID is the number, not the card. And it's purely digital and hence verifiable online.
In India, it's about you being the identity, not the card.
But stay with us here.
However, there's no official national identity card in India per se.
The Aadhaar card, printed on paper, is often used as a de facto ID. Other ID document forms can be passports, driving licenses, and electoral photo identity cards.
See the list of acceptable documents as proof of Identity and address in India here.
National identity schemes
Nations deploy national identity trust systems to rationalize services and processes in social services, taxes, local voting, and administration and promote private services by stimulating the digital economy, all while reducing costs.
They can reap digital dividends quite effectively, as evidenced by our web dossier and The World Bank's May 2016 report.
Thales believes that modern digital economies are built on implementing strong digital identities for citizens.
Only this can ensure the necessary level of trust in the internet and the mobile devices of the future, with interoperable authentication and signature solutions, through the implementation of secure portable devices ("secure elements"), such as PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) SIM cards, identity cards, as well as many other innovative devices.
Our extensive experience has shown that implementing secure, trusted eID is essential for citizens' unreserved and enthusiastic adoption of eGov solutions.
That makes sense if you think about it.
Citizens are the ones who must carry this physical object on their person – a digital safe containing their identity, personal data, and rights.
This mode enables strong authentication through at least two factors: "what I have" (my secure mobile device) and "what I know" (my secret code).
Overall, the key message for those concerned about electronic national ID schemes is that security and surveillance are different.
What is security in the digital age?
Security gives us the power to be more creative in promoting our well-being - while limiting the effects of uncertainty as best, we can.
Digital security is not something that constrains, limits or restricts us.
Instead, it is the very thing that opens up new possibilities, providing the reassurance we need to take full advantage of human development benefits, acting within - and protected by - the rule of law.
With more substantial reassurance and improved security, we can do more effectively to bring about the changes that will shape our future.
Thales' business is focused on digital identity and security. As well as defining a corporate mission, our company slogan - "Building a future we can all trust" – echoes the values at the heart of any sustainable digital society.
More on national ID schemes