Digital Sourdoughs: How do you prove your identity online?

I generally get very fast and efficient service at the motor vehicles branch office and the Department of Health. With four kids, we are frequent fliers in the learner's licence and lost-health-card categories.

I generally get very fast and efficient service at the motor vehicles branch office and the Department of Health. With four kids, we are frequent fliers in the learner’s licence and lost-health-card categories. Having lived in Ontario, Quebec and (especially) Belgium, I can tell you the Yukon offices are best-in-class in customer service attitude.

I had never questioned the need to take a wad of passports, driver’s licences, utility bills, bank statements and so on to a government office to prove my identity and residence. However, one of my kids recently said he found it annoying that he couldn’t get his learner’s licence the day after his birthday since his health card expired the day before (i.e., on his birthday!), and his parents had lost the little sticker that had been mailed out a few weeks before. Didn’t motor vehicles staff know he had a valid Yukon health card and was enrolled in a Yukon school?

Then I happened to talk to a friend from Estonia and some people in California trying to figure out how to more effectively verify identities for online business.

Not too far in the future, our current world of funny gmail monikers, regularly changing cell phone numbers and verification questions about your mother’s maiden name and favourite movie will seem pretty quaint.

My friend from Estonia is a beneficiary of that country’s efforts to create a secure digital e-citizenship certificate. At birth, everyone gets a secure digital identity using the principles of public-private key encryption that they can use for school, taxes, health and so on. She says she has a digital identity linked to a physical card, with a card reader that allows her to validate her identity with government and private-sector organizations.

She says it is a super-convenient way to sign documents, pay bills and communicate securely with the authorities.

In Canada, the government spends big bucks on a secure physical passport. But when I log onto the tax department’s website, I can’t help but wonder why they still work on a username-and-password system. There is no “second factor” like a token with a regularly changing code, a fingerprint scan like on my iPhone or even a mobile phone alert system. In this sense, my access to my Aurore of the Yukon podcast account on iTunes is more secure than my tax return.

Identity theft causes huge financial costs and personal mayhem, and has spawned a multi-billion-dollar industry in North America to help citizens protect against it.

This raises the question of whether the government could do us all a lot of good by doing something like what Estonia has done.

The idea has its challenges. The government would have to pick a truly secure cryptographic technology. It would have to spend money implementing the system. And officials would have to face the risk that there might be security breaches. In the strange logic of government, officials don’t get in trouble now if your identity is stolen because your Social Insurance Number, driver’s license number and various other non-secure details are floating around out there. But they fear recriminations if they brought in a new digital system and even a single breach occurred.

Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister could easily think up a dozen reasons to go slow, very slow.

Also, a lot of the benefits are hard to quantify. How much cumulative time is wasted across the country in a year by people trying to remember the name of their first grade teacher, or making multiple trips to the motor vehicles branch with utility bills retrieved from the recycling? It’s relatively small per person and hard to calculate, but probably quite large collectively.

Furthermore, it raises the spectre of the government (and nefarious third parties) being able to track everyone with a single number. You would probably be alarmed already if you knew what national security agencies and big Internet companies do now. However, my friend is quite comfortable with the safeguards Estonia has in place.

This is interesting, since she grew up in the bad old days in the USSR with its notorious surveillance agencies and secret police, and I had expected her to be more skittish.

It is a very interesting policy question. What is better? Our current system, whose fragmented nature causes financial and personal costs, but which everyone is used to and whose inherent fragmentation prevents the state and bad actors (mostly) from tracking us too closely? Or a system where everyone thinks having a secure online identity is as natural as showing your passport to get on a flight to Vancouver, but some future Canadian Donald Trump regime might start tracking people and making lists?

There is also the interesting question of what will happen if Canadian governments move slowly. Estonia is offering its digital identities to non-Estonians since they find it useful to have a trusted authenticator, but their own governments are failing to provide one. My Estonian friend knows an Italian who has taken out an Estonian e-identity for this reason. Various tech startups in Silicon Valley are trying to create private-sector solutions. I just “DocuSigned” a contract digitally the other day. Individual companies are investing in things like retina and fingerprint scans. If our government does nothing, in 10 years millions of Canadians may be signed up with something controlled by a private company (which Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayak enthusiasts might actually applaud), or another government.

The B.C. government is working on something in this space, and I hear the Yukon government is engaged in those conversations too. We’ll see how far and fast they go.

My guess is that in 10 years you won’t be signing up for online services using yukonsalmondude@gmail.com and the movie Caddyshack as your identity points. But whether you’re using your Facebook identity or an Estonian-style Yukon digital citizenship code remains to be seen.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won last year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show.

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