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Wisekey is a World Economic Forum Global Growth Company that provides specialized security and digital identification cutting-edge technologies for personal data protection, effective identification and authentication of people and objects.
How is Wisekey taking a new approach to digital identity?
Carlos Moreira (CM): Currently in the digital world, say once you sign up to Facebook, your identity does not belong to you but to the platform. This is the equivalent of accepting an invitation to a dinner and then being unable to change your mind.
The Wisekey model provides a digital identity to the user – we host identities using the required cryptographic technology. For us, your digital identity is not your nationality, not your bank account, not your frequent flyer program but your human right, like your birth certificate. Then one day, you can decide to issue it [by generating a public key out of a private key] in order to do things on the internet.
Digital IDs are far from mainstream. How much of that is because governments haven’t caught up?
CM: There is definitely confusion in the market and governments are creating it. For example, in the case of the rejected Swiss vote, the government said: “We’re going to issue an electronic identity, are you for or against?” They are not; they are issuing a government attribute to identify you, which is different to what Wisekey would offer. People did not understand this, and it’s why they voted “No”.
To develop services like voting and paying your taxes from home, you need to be issued with a digital identity. And then you take that ID and the government – if you’re Swiss, say – will add to it to your nationality attributes.
It's a human right to have a digital ID, just like it is to have a birth certificate – even if you’re a foreigner in your place of birth.Carlos Moreira
Once people say “Yes, we want that understanding of a digital ID” the next question is: How should it be issued? Governments lack the tech, so they would have to enlist the private sector. A second option is the private sector gives the software to the government to handle. That’s actually going to be the next vote in Switzerland: Would you authorize the government if they had the software from the private sector? The answer might still be No, because people might argue their digital ID is not tied to their nationality.
And yet it’s a human right to have it, just like it is to have a birth certificate – even if you’re a foreigner in your place of birth.
I recently gave a seminar with the United Nations Human Rights Commission to add the notion of digital identity into the Declaration of Human Rights. Every human should have a digital identity by 2030, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. You see once you have your own digital identity, whatever you do with it is based on your consent.
In fact, I see digital identity as a human right – but countries must ensure that this is done responsibly, to avoid creating a surveillance society.
Does that mean we may find the Swiss people are not against digital IDs as a whole but the particular system (governing issuing) that is not secure?
Arturo Bris (AB): Exactly. Wisekey would offer a system to provide a digital identity in an anonymous way which is less sinister. For instance, if the government issues the ID people may that someone may supplant their ID and vote for them. If Wisekey issues it, it’s impossible because there is no intermediary and it is of utmost importance to them that your ID details disappear from the database as soon as it has been issues to you, in the name of optimal security. Wisekey is working on a system therefore that could not be tampered with by the government.
The utopia for digital IDs would see everyone possessing one and all financial transactions, bank accounts, insurance policies and trading accounts consolidated under a single app or system.Arturo Bris
Getting a digital identity seems to pose both technological and social problems. Why is that?
AB: Absolutely. Technologically speaking, digital identities are controversial because digital identities only work if they cannot be supplanted, and allow individuals to perform multiple activities in the digital domain. Socially, they are controversial because the value of a digital identity is entirely dependent on the access to technology of people — thus poor societies are less likely to enjoy their benefits.
Digital identities change the rules of the game for Fintech too, in terms of client identification, KYC regulations, cross-border payments and financial transactions. The utopia for digital identities would see everyone possessing one and all our financial transactions, bank accounts, insurance policies and trading accounts consolidated under a single app or system. The technology would improve customer experience, but also force financial institutions to redefine their business models.
The difficulty of adding the technology to the architecture of the internet has also been a factor in digital identities becoming mainstream too, hasn’t it?
CM: Yes. The internet doesn’t know who you are. There’s that famous cartoon of a dog on the internet pretending to be a human that exemplifies it so well… Why is that all changing now? New technologies like blockchain are allowing us to issue digital entities using public infrastructure and to decentralize that identity through blockchain ledgers.
In the same way every person will have an identity, every object will have a digital ID using our same software. With your digital indentity you can control your car, the lock to your home: in this new model, when you buy a car you – as opposed to the manufacturer – control that identity.
An estimated one trillion things will be connected to the internet by 2030; the more things become connected to the internet, the more important it will be for you to have your own digital identity.
You’ve said ‘digital identity havens are the new tax havens’. What do you mean by that?
CM: Countries like the British Virgin Islands, Gibraltar and Bermuda are converting themselves into identity providers as tax havens are no longer popular. Take Estonia: it’s the only country in the world that has made digital identity a product. You pay $35 and you are a digital citizen without being Estonian by nationality.
Big countries like the US, France and Italy will take longer because they are sovereign thinkers. Their attitude is “You have to have a passport before you exist”. So, as centralized countries, they will take longer to issue digital identities. Switzerland’s issue is that while it is decentralized, every canton wants to do things differently.
AB: I would add that in the Estonian model, the whole system is centralized by the government but it is protected from the outside by blockchain – the X-road. So Estonia’s system is not entirely blockchain.
How has COVID-19 accelerated the digital identity process?
CM: As it stands, you can add your test result and your vaccination information into our App. We are working with IATA (The International Air Transport Association), Lufthansa and the Seychelles government to create faster access for people, be it into countries or concerts, by having their digital identity and your vaccination identity within the one App. Countries need to open their economies and, with the App, we are providing a new type of ticket for entry.
But we must enact the current phase properly, by which I mean people need to have very clear what is happening. Because if we don’t, the risk is we create a surveillance society. We can see it happening in China. Countries will be able to abuse their citizens, and it will be very difficult to escape from.
This interview was carried out by former IMD MBA students Stephanie Hurry and Matteo Conti.
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