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Tony Blair Institute calls for single digital IDs

Tony Blair
Tony Blair
Image source: Tony Blair Institute

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has added his voice to the call for a single digital identity as part of a package of measures for the future of the country.

It is part of a policy paper from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, titled A New National Purpose, to which former Conservative Party leader William Hague has also made a contribution.

It also includes recommendations on government’s role in AI, promoting interoperability in healthcare and encouraging the use of new technologies in education.

The support for a single digital identity will have an element of controversy given Blair’s plan during his time in office for a national identity card that would have had similarities in its role. This attracted strong opposition from privacy activists and was dropped when the Coalition Government came to power in 2010.

The paper does not mention cards but emphasises the importance of digital identities for government and private sector services, and makes the case for a secure, private, digital ID system for both  that would be decentralised – in contrast to the centralised database that would have supported the national identity card.

It says this would allow people to prove they are who they say they are and could accommodate credentials issued by various authorities, such as educational or vocational qualifications. This comes with familiar claims over the associated benefits.

Access and understanding

“This would make it cheaper, easier and more secure to access a range of goods and services, online and in person,” the report says. “A digital ID could help the government to understand users' needs and preferences better, improving the design of public services.

“It would make it simpler and easier to access benefits, reducing the number of people who are missing out on support they are entitled to. It could even help the government move to a more proactive model, meeting people’s needs before they apply for a service, tailoring the services and support they are offered to their individual circumstances and reducing administrative burdens on both individuals and the public sector.”

The report says technologies such as advanced encryption with zero-knowledge proofs could make it possible to securely share attributes without exposing underlying data or sharing unnecessary information, and makes two technical recommendations.

One is to accelerate the implementation of a single digital ID system for all residents, with a digital wallet to access it, while ensuring digital and physical copies of identity have the same legal status. The other is to legislate for a wide ranging ‘once only’ principle – a legally binding requirement on government not to request information from citizens if it is already held by another government body – as a forcing mechanism to spur secure and proportionate data sharing between agencies.

AI ambitions

It also calls for efforts to embed the use of AI across public services, saying it could be a valuable tool in education – with an approval of systems such as ChatGPT – and that the UK should not become dependent on external providers.

With this in mind, it recommends the deployment of general purpose AI systems that can disseminate innovation throughout public services, through procurement in partnership with a consortium of domestic companies and an elite public sector research effort.

“Considering the pace of AI progress, the state will need to adapt to opportunities as they arise and focus on getting research advances into the hands of users as fast as possible,” the report says. “Direct access to and control over general purpose AI systems can ensure this is possible while also supporting other initiatives.”

It also opposes the current NHS England plan for the development of a federated data platform to support healthcare, highlighting the problems with the interoperability of systems across the health service, and saying a single centralised platform would likely be a better option.

“It would mandate common data collection, data standards and interoperability, enabling the benefits of a connected data system to be fully realised,” it says. “It would ensure a common standard of EHRs across the NHS, in terms of functionality, resilience and universal coverage.

“A single database would also be able to connect more easily with external systems to share data such as clinical-trials-management systems, trusted research environments or platforms providing data from devices such as wearables.”

Accelerate edtech roll out

Another technical recommendation is to accelerate the roll out of education technology across the country, backed by a new edtech training fund that schools could use to pay for one of their teachers to become proficient in specific platforms then help to upskill their colleagues.

Other recommendations include: reorganising the centre of government to drive the science and technology agenda; creating an Advanced Procurement Agency to find opportunities for public sector innovation; and reforming technology transfer offices to encourage more university spin-outs.

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